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AstroDad excoriates ‘Big Science’, proposes new definition of a planet

(Rockwall) July 12, 2013 – How many folks out there recall the strange debate in 2006 generated by a laughing stock “media” scientist in New City to “demote” Pluto from planetary status in our Solar System to “Dwarf Planet” status?

The public found out about this debate and began to cry out for and against Pluto’s future planetary status. So great was the hue and cry that more than 300 proposals for and against Pluto flowed into the International Astronomical Union (IAU). These events put social pressure on the IAU meeting in Prague in August 2006 – and like many big meetings of smart folks, this gathering produced an oddly ridiculous and unworkable definition of “what is a Planet.”

You see my fellow human, this definition of what constitutes a planet ignores countless planets that orbit countless other stars, not just our own Sun, which is a star – a G2v-class Yellow Dwarf Star, in fact.  Ours is a very common star that hosts a set of planets that orbit our star.  Heck, I thought we figured out the Earth isn’t the center of the Universe over four centuries ago, when humanity was closing in on the debate of an Earth-centered Universe versus a Sun-centered system.  The “geocentrists” (Earth-centered) folks led by the church establishment lost out to the Helio-centrists (Sun centered) scientists who had observed facts on their side.

Flash forward 400 years or so and the unfortunate result of the 2006 IAU “Planet Definition Meeting” provides evidence that the “people” who are in charge of our science have not really advanced beyond the 400 year-old debate.  You see, this very poor “new definition” of a planet completely ignores the inescapable fact that there our human technology and science has already discovered 3,346 candidate planets and confirmed that 879 of these candidates are indeed planets that are in orbit around nearby stars in a nearby, small part of space in our Milky Way Galaxy.  Remember, there are a couple hundred billion stars in our galaxy and a couple hundred billion galaxies in our known Universe.  Why would such a large body of sages define a planet as only that which is in our Solar System, ignoring the other couple hundred billion stars in our own galaxy and the couple hundred billion galaxies in our Universe?

Indeed, according to the IAU, hundreds of humanity’s greatest astronomers, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union, deliberated on a new definition for the word planet for nearly two years. For accuracy’s sake, here is the exact definition the IAU scientists adopted in 2006 at their meeting:

A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

In plain language (I’m pleased that scientists can’t emit plain language definitions because this provides a place for people like me to bridge the gap between these great scientists and the common person): A planet is an object in orbit around the Sun that is massive enough that its own gravity pulls itself into a round (or nearly-so) shape. In addition a planet orbits in a clear path around the Sun. If any object ventures near the orbit of a planet, it will either collide with the planet, and thereby join the planet, or be ejected into another orbit. In this definition, our Earth would and would not be considered a “real” planet, depending on its location. If our Earth were in the Kuiper Belt where all the left-overs from when the Sun became a star are floating about, Earth couldn’t possibly clear the area.

Joke’s on You IAU:  Here Comes New Horizons

New Horizons was launched January 19, 2006 from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. With a boost from a Boeing STAR-48 solid-propellant third stage, New Horizons sped away from Earth at 36,000 miles per hour – the fastest spacecraft ever launched. It’s primary mission is to execute the first flyby study of Pluto and its moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra. The speedy spacecraft will arrive at Pluto in a couple of years to begin its exploration of Pluto.  Here’s a bold prediction, that humankind is going to observe that Pluto is VERY much a planetary body based on the scientific observational fact.

I love astronomy because it’s hard to argue with what we observe with our systems. Sometimes things are hidden in wavelength and frequency but our technology and resolving power is now beginning to reach back to very beginning of time in our own Universe.  Will the IAU rescind its decision and restore Pluto to planetary status, characterizing their global geology and geomorphology, mapping their surface compositions and temperatures, and examining Pluto’s atmospheric composition and structure? If this amazing robotic spacecraft survives its initial encounters, it may conduct a potential extended mission. In this extended mode, New Horizons would conduct similar studies of one or more smaller worlds in the Kuiper Belt.

Back in 2005 and 2006, when Pluto’s second and third moons (Nix and Hydra) were discovered, searches by astronomers for still more moons didn’t reveal any. So the accidental discovery of Pluto’s fourth moon by the Hubble Space Telescope in mid-2011 (during a search for Plutonian rings) raised the possibility that the hazards in the Pluto system might be greater than previously anticipated. Those concerns were amplified when Hubble discovered a fifth moon in 2012. As a result of those discoveries, the New Horizons science and operations teams began to more carefully scrutinize the true level of hazards to our spacecraft at closest approach and devise mitigation strategies to make sure the encounter with Pluto would be successful.

The SHBOT's are potential trajectories for New Horizons to keep it safe from Pluto's Moons

AstroDad’s Proposed Definition of a Planet (based on present and future technologies):

A planet is a body in orbit around a stellar-class object (star) whose mass is great enough to produce a fusion heat reaction.  A planet is further defined to be rounded due to the forces of gravity acting on its own mass.  Planets may or may not have objects in orbit around them (satellite moons). The satellite moons orbiting planets may themselves be large enough to qualify as planets and even harbor life forms.  However, since they orbit other planets and not stellar class objects, they shall be called “moons”.   In the case of a “rogue” object detected in the Universe that appears to have formed as a planet in a stellar system but was ejected due to some force such as collision, it shall retain its status as planet without prejudice.

That last part of the definition is pretty cool and I’m psyched that we don’t exhibit prejudice in this definition and it covers pretty much soup to nuts in the known Universe.  If enough of you like this definition, I propose we tighten the thumbscrews on the “Science Establishment ” and create our own movement to force them to get it right, perhaps using this definition as a starting point.  It’s bold, but what the heck, no one is shooting at me so this is a bonus.

Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall.

Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.

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