It’s time to redefine what qualifies as a planet, scientists propose

Redefinition would add Pluto back to the list, plus about 100 more


PLANET OR NOT?  A group of planetary scientists label Pluto and many other orbs in the solar system as planets, despite the definition set down by the International Astronomical Union in 2006.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Southwest Research Institute, NASA

Pluto is a planet. It always has been, and it always will be, says Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Now he just has to convince the world of that.

For centuries, the word planet meant “wanderer” and included the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Eventually the moon and sun were dropped from the definition, but Pluto was included, after its discovery in 1930. That idea of a planet as a rocky or gaseous body that orbited the sun stuck, all the way up until 2006.

Then, the International Astronomical Union narrowed the definition, describing a planet as any round object that orbits the sun and has moved any pesky neighbors out of its way, either by consuming them or flinging them off into space. Pluto failed to meet the last criterion (SN: 9/2/06, p. 149), so it was demoted to a dwarf planet.

Almost overnight, the solar system was down to eight planets. “The public took notice,” Grundy says. It latched onto the IAU’s definition — perhaps a bit prematurely. The definition has flaws, he and other planetary scientists argue. First, it discounts the thousands of exotic worlds that orbit other stars and also rogue ones with no star to call home (SN: 4/4/15, p. 22).

Second, it requires that a planet cut a clear path around the sun. But no planet does that; Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune share their paths with asteroids, and objects crisscross planets’ paths all the time.

The third flaw is related to the second. Objects farther from the sun need to be pretty bulky to cut a clear path. You could have a rock the size of Earth in the Kuiper Belt and it wouldn’t have the heft required to gobble down or eject objects from its path. So, it couldn’t be considered a planet.

Grundy and colleagues (all members of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto) laid out these arguments against the IAU definition of a planet March 21 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. 

A more suitable definition of a planet, says Grundy, is simpler: It’s any round object in space that is smaller than a star. By that definition, Pluto is a planet. So is the asteroid-belt object Ceres. So is Earth’s moon. “There’d be about 110 known planets in our solar system,” Grundy says, and plenty of exoplanets and rogue worlds would fit the bill as well.

The reason for the tweak is to keep the focus on the features — the physics, the geology, the atmosphere — of the world itself, rather than worry about what’s going on around it, he says.

The New Horizons mission has shown that Pluto is an interesting world with active geology, an intricate atmosphere and other features associated with planets in the solar system. It makes no sense to write Pluto off because it doesn’t fit one criterion. Grundy seems convinced the public could easily readopt the small world as a planet. Though he admits astronomers might be a tougher sell.

“People have been using the word correctly all along,” Grundy says. He suggests we stick with the original definition. That’s his plan.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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