Monday, August 14, 2006

Bye Bye Pluto? Scientists Define "Planet"

I've always been interested in Astronomy. I'm very interested with the results of this conference. I couldn't fit Astronomy 100 in my schedule in first year, so I don't know a lot about this, but IMHO since Pluto is smaller than the moon, it shouldn't be considered a planet. However, there are other factors like, rotation etc... I'm sure they are considering when defining a planet.

The fate of tiny Pluto is hanging in the balance.

Astronomers from around the world are gathering in Prague over the next two weeks to come up with the first official definition of the word planet — and puny Pluto might be considered too small to make the grade.

“We have been living with Pluto as a member of the solar system for 76 years, and school children just love Pluto and we can't take it away from them or they will be broken-hearted,” conceded Owen Gingerich, who chaired an International Astronomical Union committee on the matter.

However, last year's discovery in the far fringes of the solar system of an object, nicknamed Xena after the warrior princess from a popular TV show, that is slightly bigger than Pluto has brought the issue to a head.

When Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona discovered Pluto in 1930, it was touted as being at least as big as Earth.

But by the 1970s, astronomers had figured out that it was much smaller.

It is just 2,270 kilometres in diameter, has just 1/400th the mass of Earth and is substantially smaller than the moon.

Some astronomers have been arguing that Pluto should be stripped of its planetary status. Even so, the IAU, which is responsible for naming planets and other celestial objects, has been reluctant to demote the little world.

If Pluto is big enough to be considered a planet, then the new object Xena should be considered one too, said one of its discoverers, Michael Brown, a professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Others insist that anointing the new find as the 10th planet would be repeating the same mistake made when Pluto was allowed into the planetary club.

What is needed is a clear definition of a planet. So, last year the IAU established a committee of 19 astronomers to do the job. But that cumbersome group became deadlocked. As a result, the organization set up a seven-member subcommittee, which met in Paris at the end of June to sort out the mess.

“We considered a lot of factors and, in the end, we came up with a unanimous recommendation,” said Prof. Gingerich, who chaired the subcommittee.

That recommendation will be officially unveiled on Wednesday(Aug. 16) in Prague at a general assembly meeting of the IAU. The astronomers will then debate the proposal and ultimately vote on it. That vote is set for the conference's final day, Aug. 24.

Source: Globe and Mail


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