Furthest from the sun, Pluto comes under attack

  • World
  • Sunday, 13 Aug 2006

By Alan Crosby

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Despite being the farthest planet from Earth in our solar system, Pluto has come under attack from astronomers and may be about to lose its status in the battle. 

Some 3,000 astronomers and scientists from around the world will meet in Prague this week to decide whether Pluto, discovered in 1930, measures up to the definition of a planet. 

In defining for the first time what exactly a planet is, the International Astronomers Union (IAU) may be forced to downgrade Pluto's status, or add as many as 14 others. 

Such a decision would send shockwaves through the scientific community, instantly outdate textbooks, and cause educators to re-teach the basics of our solar system. 

"The pivotal question is the status of Pluto, which is clearly very different from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune," Owen Gingerich, professor of Astronomy and History of Science emeritus at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Reuters. 

Debate has raged within the scientific community over the status of Pluto for decades after the planet was found to be only one four-hundredths of the mass of the earth. 

That discussion intensified in 2003 when astronomers at the California Institute of Technology discovered UB 313. Nicknamed Xena after the character in the television show, UB 313 is one of more than a dozen celestial bodies in our solar system found to be larger than Pluto. 

Xena and Pluto are large icy bodies that reside in the Kuiper Belt -- where thousands of floating bodies travel -- beyond Neptune. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope put Xena's diameter at 1,490 miles or so. That is slightly bigger than Pluto, which measures 1,422 miles across. 

Gingerich is the chair of a committee that was asked to come up with a definition of a planet and hand it to the IAU general assembly, which runs Aug. 14-25. 

In the run-up to the assembly, emotions have been running high in both directions. 

Some have appealed to Gingerich's group not to downgrade Pluto, saying it would disappoint children and throw our understanding of the universe into chaos. 

Others say let the chips fall where they may and seem to relish the idea of overturning our current view of the universe. 

Gingerich said that modern technologies have allowed scientists to delve into the solar system further, and in more detail, than ever before. Therefore, it is no surprise that questions on the fundamental assumptions of it are arising. 

"Should it (Pluto), for historical reasons, be considered a planet like the rest?" Gingerich asks, refusing to tip his hand on how the seven-member group has agreed after deciding on the wording in June. 

Scientists say the group may make a new class of planets that accepts large bodies such as Xena and Pluto that do not measure up to the eight larger planets. They could also drop Pluto's status as a planet or expand the list of planets to include many similarly-sized bodies found in the solar system. 

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