Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Everybody's Party: Darkness and Light at the Winter Solstice


It was a cold, blustery night exactly one year ago when shortly after midnight, I headed for Sperry Observatory, the home of Amateur Astronomers, Inc., in Cranford, NJ, for an informal gathering of members to watch a rare Winter Solstice lunar eclipse.

And as I have said time and again over the past year, it was one of the most powerful, most memorable, most magical holiday memories, not just of that year, but of a lifetime.

Most people expect those types of memories from holiday parties in beautifully decorated rooms filled with friends, family, and familiar seasonal music. Some make memories at religious services commemorating the many seasonal festivals (and in celebratory festivals at other times of the year).

Ever the non-conformist, I found the truth, beauty, and experience of the season outdoors in the dead of night with a wind chill below 20 degrees, not under glittering holiday lights, but with fellow enthusiasts (some might say fanatics) under a rare red Solstice Moon.

In childhood, December was a time of personal agony, a party from which I was excluded. The powerful innate connection I felt to this season was unacknowledged as the people around me treated these as just ordinary days. It was, after all, only a Christian festival.

Except, it’s not. Yes, there is the Christian holiday, but it is one of many, not the be all and end all of December. Long before Christianity ever took on just about all the trappings of this month’s celebrations, the Winter Solstice, the original reason for the season, was honored, commemorated, and welcomed with awe and wonder.

Thousands of years ago, places like Stonehenge and New Grange were built by ancient people who understood that they were part of the Earth and its seasonal rhythms, not separate from it. They understood that like everything else that lives, they too lived—or died—together with the Earth and the web of life they shared with it.

And they understood that the rhythm of all life is a cycle. There cannot be summer without winter, day without night, life without death. But in a cycle, death is not the end of the line but the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. The waning Moon gives way to the new, waxing Moon. The Sun, without which even the ancients understood that no one and nothing can live, was seen as going through an annual cycle of life, from birth and growth in spring through its prime and strength in the summer, followed by waning in the fall and ultimate death at its weakest point, the Winter Solstice.

But on that night, the longest, darkest night of the year, ancient cultures celebrated what they saw as a miracle. The sun was reborn as an infant, and from this day forward, the days would begin to lengthen once more. A new year, a new cycle, had begun.

Today, we know about orbits and understand that seasons are caused by the Earth’s axial tilt. We can do nothing, celebrate nothing, and the days will lengthen after December 21 anyway.

Yet one could argue the ancient people had something we don’t have and badly need—that powerful connection with our home planet, our Earth mother, the sense that we live as she lives, and we die as she dies. We still have the same types of celebrations and symbols at this time of year, but what we are missing is the connection to nature, to the rhythms of the world that sustains us.

Out in the dark and cold last year, I experienced firsthand the reality of the season. It was so cold that even with the whole ensemble of boots, gloves, scarf, hat, and hood, I could only stay out for limited amounts of time before heading back into the warmth of the observatory.

Before 1 am, the Moon looked like an ordinary full Moon. One of the club’s most active members set up his telescope and camera to capture the event. We watched as slowly, imperceptibly, the black shadow crept onto the Moon, first small, then growing, growing, the Moon appearing to go through a weird procession of all its phases. But instead of disappearing, as shadow enveloped it, the Moon turned red.

The red Moon was nowhere near bright enough to cast the light of a full Moon. On the night of a full Moon, we were enveloped in darkness.

Several people who were not even club members showed up between 2 and 3 am, including one woman with several children, who decided that giving her children this unique experience would trump whatever was taught in school the next day. If I had had children, I would have done the same.

A Winter Solstice song by Loreena McKinnett begins with “Enter the night, and you’ll find the light.” In the early morning hours of December 21, 2010, I and other lucky observers entered the night and experienced the full extent of darkness and cold. At the same time, we found the light of camaraderie, of sublime connection with our home planet, from that very same cold and dark.

And that is why the Winter Solstice is everybody’s holiday. The dark, the cold, the weakness of sunlight even during the daytime, are personal experiences we all live. Innately, inherently, we long for the return of the light. All of us, regardless of faith, ethnicity, race, and all the other things that divide us, in some way, feel this longing.

We may not be able to have a lunar eclipse every year at this time, but neither do we have to have a “December Dilemma.” The return of the light, the rebirth of the Sun, is not “someone else’s party.” It’s our party, the party of every being that lives on Earth (though reversed by six months for those in the Southern Hemisphere). No one is “left out.”

In the depth of winter, light is returning. As the author of the book Seasonal Dance put it, “the darkest night is the birthday of the Sun.” If we take the time to really feel the connection with our world, we will understand in a way that is too profound for words. That is the true reason for comfort and joy.

Happy Solstice!



Saturday, December 10, 2011

Is Vesta the Smallest Terrestrial Planet?



What defines a planet, a decree by an "authority," or the data we learn about an object? The Dawn mission has revealed fascinating information about Vesta, all of which show it to be far more a planet than an asteroid. Here we have yet one more piece of evidence in support of a broad planet definition that encompasses the wide range of objects that both orbit stars and orbit planets, the satellites of stars.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Case for Pluto's Ocean

http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=20717

Pluto may very well be one of several planets (I include spherical moons here, which I consider satellite planets) that might harbor a subsurface ocean that could host microbial life. Maybe subsurface oceans will one day be a new defining characteristic for this specific type of planet!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dawn Mission: Dawn Image of the Day Archive

Dawn Mission: Dawn Image of the Day Archive

Vesta is a complex world. Dawn is showing us that protoplanet are very different from tiny, shapeless asteroids.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Occultation Data Show Pluto and Eris Are "Twins"

http://www.space.com/13403-dwarf-planet-eris-pluto-twin.html

In fact, Eris having a higher density than Pluto means Eris likely has a higher percentage of rock than does Pluto, which is estimated at 70 percent rock. This rocky nature is part of what makes these objects planets. We now know definitively that the 2006 IAU decision was based on erroneous information--that Eris is larger than Pluto, which turns out to be false--which only serves to reinforce the notion that that decision was premature.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Primordial Organic Material on Pluto

http://www.space.com/12823-primordial-organic-material-pluto.html

This New Horizons video from Space.com discusses the mission and anticipates what researches might find on Pluto's surface.

When I tried to watch this using Internet Explorer, the site kept asking me to download the latest Adobe Flash Player even after I had already done so. You may need to use a browser other than Internet Explorer to watch this. It worked fine for me with Google Chrome.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Five Years Later: Pluto Hasn't Been Killed and Doesn't Have It Coming

It’s August 24, 2011; five years have passed since the debacle in Prague, and a few vocal people who insist our solar system has only eight planets are still acting like broken records, endlessly repeating “get over it.”

That’s because the decision that was supposed to be final, that was intended to once and for all end the debate over Pluto’s status and over how to define the term planet continues to be a huge #FAIL, as new discoveries keep the little world front and center and continue to amaze us.

Being a procrastinator is usually not considered a positive thing. Yet for me, as I continue to work on my book and on several other Pluto-related writings, the delays have resulted in unexpected benefits, specifically, a continual influx of new information about Pluto, dwarf planets, proto-planets, and exoplanets that, in each case, compels revisions and new topics of discussion.

As often said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and discoveries in just the last year, never mind the last five years, powerfully illustrate the mistake made by four percent of the IAU in rushing through a resolution based on only a little knowledge, a resolution accurately and amusingly described by Alan Boyle in his book The Case for Pluto as looking like “it was stitched together by Dr. Frankenstein.”

Except Dr. Frankenstein’s monster “took.” The IAU definition, to the dismay of those who threw it together and then proclaimed victory in the debate, did not “take.”

Here is some of the knowledge 424 astronomers voting in Prague in 2006 did not yet have:

Pluto’s lower atmosphere contains methane gas, as revealed in March 2009 by ESO’s Very Large Telescope. This lower atmosphere is significantly warmer than Pluto’s surface, where the average temperature is –180 Celsius. Unlike Earth, Pluto has an “upside down” atmosphere where temperatures increase at higher levels by 3-15 degrees Celsius per kilometer.

Pluto might harbor a subsurface ocean that could host microbial life and could also drive a weak magnetic field. Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, may also host a subsurface ocean and shows evidence of cryovolcanism.

Contrary to popular belief, Pluto is once again the largest Kuiper Belt Object, as Eris’ occultation of a star in November 2010 helped astronomers obtain a more accurate measurement of its size, which was determined to be marginally smaller than Pluto’s. There currently are no known objects in either the Kuiper Belt or the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that are larger than Pluto. Eris is slightly more dense than Pluto, but if density is all that counts for planets, then Saturn should be demoted, as it is the solar system’s least dense world, to the point that it could actually float in water.

Outside our solar system, an incredible range of exoplanets has been found, most of which would never fit the IAU planet definition even if it specified planets have to orbit a star rather than our Sun. These include planets that orbit their star backwards (in the direction opposite the star’s rotation); a planet believed to have been formed the way stars form, directly from a molecular cloud, orbiting a brown dwarf; a Sun-like star with six planets all orbiting within a space equal to the orbit of Mercury; rogue planets not orbiting any stars; at least two systems with giant planets orbiting in the same 3:2 resonance as Neptune and Pluto, and even a star system with two planets that share a single orbit.

Such unexpected findings prompted planetary scientist Dr. Jack Lissauer to admit the data is “sending me back to the drawing board” when it comes to theories of solar system formation. Those who exclude Pluto from planethood due to its eccentric orbit should study exoplanets, many of which have orbits far more inclined and elliptical than Pluto’s. Apparently, astronomers’ theory that most solar systems formed the way ours did is being proven incorrect, as can be seen here: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Interstellar_Crashes_Could_Toss_Out_Habitable_Planets_999.html

In 2011, Pluto twice occulted a star, allowing astronomers to obtain more accurate measurements of its atmosphere’s pressure, density, and temperature via NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. Contrary to expectations, Pluto’s atmosphere has not become thinner as the planet recedes from its closest point to the Sun, which it reached in 1989. No one knows why.

Pluto’s atmosphere changes very quickly, as can be distinguished from changes in the coloring on its surface. More on this can be found here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.3014

Vesta, a main belt body known as an asteroid since the mid-19th century, now being visited by the Dawn mission, is showing itself to be a highly complex, geologically differentiated world. It is not quite spherical, not quite in hydrostatic equilibrium but clearly very different from any asteroids except Ceres, which is not an asteroid at all, but a small planet, and Pallas, which is somewhat similar to Vesta. Some astronomers now refer to Vesta and Pallas as “protoplanets” to distinguish them from tiny, shapeless asteroids.

If having a tail makes an object a comet, then Mercury joins the ranks of the comets, as it has an elongated tail of glowing gas, as found by NASA’s Stereo mission.

Pluto has been found to have a fourth moon, P4, estimated to be 8-21 miles in diameter. Current thought is the Pluto system was formed via a giant impact. If that sounds familiar, it should. That is how Earth’s moon is believed to have formed.

Three new dwarf planets were discovered in the Kuiper Belt, objects smaller than Pluto but large enough to be over the threshold for hydrostatic equilibrium, 250 miles or 400 kilometers wide. Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, who led the study that found these bodies, recently noted, “There could still be Mars- or even Earth-sized objects way out there, at hundreds of AU (astronomical units; one AU is the distance between the Earth and Sun, or 93 million miles), that would be too faint for us to detect.”

In spite of this, Mike Brown continues to discourage the notion of searching for more KBOs Pluto-sized or larger, claiming that if such objects existed, they would have already been found.

A most encouraging development, begun only two months ago, is Ice Hunters, a Zooniverse project in which citizen scientists can actively take part in the search for KBOs; discoveries made through this program could end up being targets for New Horizons after it flies by Pluto. No longer is KBO hunting or even planet hunting restricted to professional astronomers who can obtain coveted time on large telescopes. Anyone reading this who wants to take part in this exciting project, which is being run in conjunction with the New Horizons mission, should visit http://www.icehunters.org .

All these developments have served to strengthen support for Pluto’s planet status and for the planet status of all dwarf planets. Online discussions clearly show a tide turning in small planets’ favor. Arguments such as the claim that we cannot have too many planets because it would be too hard for kids to memorize all of them, or that the term “planet” is devalued by having a large number, or that “the experts have spoken, and it’s over,” or that support for keeping small round objects as a subclass of planets is based on sentiment and emotion are more and more frequently falling flat on their faces.

Scientific principles rise and fall over time, not through a vote. For more than 100 years, people have failed in attempts to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity false. In just five years, the IAU planet definition has not only failed to take hold, but has lost ground and continues to do so as new evidence shows just how premature the decision was.

Of Pluto and the IAU’s increasing irrelevance in the discussion, Alan Stern recently said, “I believe that most planetary scientists know it’s a planet, and we don’t need the IAU to tell us it is.” Neither, for that matter, does the general public need that.

From a cultural standpoint, support for Pluto’s planet status is as strong as ever. While teaching of the solar system is not standardized, the best teachers continue to teach the controversy. Students of all ages have eagerly embraced Pluto as an exciting topic for research. Two personal examples are noteworthy here. One member of my astronomy club, who just completed her freshman year in high school, proudly informed me of the A+ she received for her paper discussing the controversy. In July, when I met the family of my brother’s fiancée, I was impressed to hear her niece, who had just completed seventh grade, emphasize that her teacher absolutely would not come down on either side of the issue, instead teaching it as an ongoing debate.

Elon University Physics Professor Tony Crider has combined astronomy with another favorite interest of his and of mine—role-playing games—to create a game in which students role play astronomers at a 1999 debate and at the 2006 IAU General Assembly. As a new school year begins, I encourage teachers and students to use this original, fun, and informative lesson, which was introduced earlier this month at a meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The game can be found at http://facstaff.elon.edu/acrider/acrider/The_Pluto_Debate.html , and I hope to post a review of it shortly.

Constantly enticing us with new data, Pluto is proving more popular than ever. In spite of a recession, Pluto-themed objects, including T-shirts, amazingly continue to sell online, even after five years. At a recent podcast I did about Pluto for the Online Astronomical Society, significant support was expressed for establishing an organization of amateur astronomers that could operate as an auxiliary to the IAU, enabling substantially more public input into decisions and facilitating better communication between professional astronomers and the public.

I am thrilled to announce that I am now a co-administrator for the Facebook Cause “Bring Pluto Back,” whose membership now stands at 1,634, nearly four times the number of people who voted to demote Pluto. If you’re on Facebook and want to join, please visit http://www.causes.com/causes/241322-bring-pluto-back .

Psychologist Carl Jung believed that symbols and myths connect people with subconscious levels of meaning that transcend logic and reason. Such symbols and myths inspire art, literature, music, and imagination. I believe Pluto has become one of those enigmas larger than itself and larger than life, compelling, motivating, inspiring people of all ages and levels of education. This is the je ne sais quoi phenomenon that those who keep repeating louder and louder that Pluto is dead and that we should “get over it,” do not comprehend.

Having performed in two Renaissance festivals, I’ve lately become fascinated with all things from that time, the age from which modern astronomy emerged. So on this fifth anniversary, my message to the IAU, whose members clearly made a premature decision based on a little knowledge and insufficient data five years ago, I will convey some Renaissance wisdom, from William Shakespeare:

“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” A good number of them are planets.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

And Babies Make 16--Solar System Planets

That is, three newly discovered dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt raise the minimum number of primary planets in our solar system (defining primary planets as objects in hydrostatic equilibrium that orbit the Sun directly as opposed to orbiting other planets plus counting dwarf planets as a subclass of planets) to 16.

Read more here: http://www.space.com/12536-3-dwarf-planets-discovered-kuiper-belt-pluto.html

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pluto Has A Fourth Moon!

Once again, the planet that was originally discovered through a fortunate series of circumstances and subsequently recognized as a new prototype for a third class of bodies orbiting our Sun (and likely other stars as well) has surprised us. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to search for rings around Pluto found something else, something unexpected: Pluto has a fourth moon!

The tiny moon is the smallest of the Pluto system, estimated to be 8-21 miles in diameter, and is located between two of Pluto's other small moons, Nix and Hydra. Interestingly, Pluto's moons, including its large moon Charon, which is big enough to be in hydrsostatic equilibrium, are believed to have formed via an impact between another celestial body and Pluto. If that sounds familiar, it should. The only other moon in our solar system known to have formed like this is Earth's moon.

Observation of this tiny new moon will be added to the agenda of New Horizons, for its flyby of Pluto four years from now.

Dr. Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, marveled at Hubble's ability to see such a tiny object more than three billion miles from Earth. This finding highlights the importance of space telescopes and serves as a reminder that the James Webb Space Telescope, which is in danger of losing its funding, is a crucial need for our continuing to make pioneering discoveries in astronomy.

The notion that Pluto may have more than the three moons we know of has long been discussed, but answers were not expected until the New Horizons flyby. This discovery emphasizes yet again how premature any "reclassification" of Pluto is. It strongly suggests there is much more about the Pluto system we have yet to learn. How can we classify or reclassify something about which we know so little?

The Pluto system is the only one in our solar system in which a small, non-gas giant has multiple moons, which formed in a collision similar to the one that created Earth's moon. We are only beginning to understand this little planet that is truly a "strange, new world."

For more on the discovery, visit http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/07/20/us.pluto.moon/?is_LR=1 .

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Happy Orbital Anniversary, Neptune!

Depending on which calculation system one uses, the planet Neptune reached an important milestone somewhere between July 9 and 12 of this year. It has finally completed a single orbit of the Sun since its discovery on September 23, 1846.

For Neptune, one orbit around the Sun takes nearly 165 Earth years!

For most of the 165 years since its discovery, we have known precious little about this distant planet. In 1989, Voyager II changed that by sending back glorious detailed up- close photos of the blue world, which has the fiercest winds in the entire solar system. We saw the Great Dark Spot, a storm akin to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, found thin rings circling the planet, and discovered six new small moons. Neptune was long thought to have only two moons, the large Triton and much smaller Nereid.

The story of Neptune’s discovery is inextricably linked with that of Pluto’s discovery. In the early 19th century, astronomers studying Uranus, which was discovered in 1781, found that its actual orbit did not match the orbit they predicted for it. Uranus’ orbit was “perturbed,” suggesting the planet was experiencing gravitational influence from yet another large object even more distant.

A lot of the same issues we see today in the field of astronomy loomed large in the mid-19th century regarding Neptune. Independently of one another, a young British astronomer named John Couch Adams and a young French astronomer named Urbain Leverrier mathematically calculated the position of the supposed planet affecting Uranus. Both faced ambivalence from the established community of astronomers. Adams tried three times to get England’s Astronomer Royal to look at his calculations and each time was unsuccessful. Leverrier finally turned to the Berlin Observatory with very specific coordinates for where the planet should be found, a feat accomplished within an hour by observer Johann Gottfried Galle.

Later, some astronomers came to believe that Neptune, too, was experiencing perturbations in its orbit, and this notion led directly to the search for yet another planet even further out. It turns out there were no perturbations, just human error in calculating Neptune’s orbit. This was not known until the 1989 Voyager II flyby. Yet the erroneous notion of perturbations directly set in motion the sequence of events that led to the discovery of Pluto, prototype of a third class of solar system planets.

Galle turns out to not be the first person to have observed Neptune. The planet happened to be near Jupiter when Galileo turned his telescope on the giant planet. Neptune actually was recorded by Galileo as a star, probably because it moved so slowly against the other background stars. There is some question as to whether Galileo recognized Neptune as something other than one of the “fixed” stars.

Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, is compositionally similar to Pluto. It orbits Neptune in the direction opposite Neptune’s orbit around the Sun, suggesting it was once a planet in its own right orbiting the Sun directly that was somehow captured by Neptune. Triton is believed to have originated in the Kuiper Belt, driving home the notion that Pluto is not a loner, that there have always been Kuiper Belt planets.

The sequence of events leading to Neptune’s discovery in 1846 also illustrate that the rivalries and personality conflicts so prominent in the Pluto debate are hardly new. The players are different now, but the behaviors are very much the same—professional rivalries between individual scientists, astronomy being drawn into political conflicts between nations (England, France, and Germany in the case of Neptune), and an elitist attitude by “established” scientists when faced with challenging ideas by newcomers viewed as “upstarts.”

While many people know me online as the “Pluto lady” or “Plutogirl,” my first planetary fascination was actually Neptune, that hypnotically beautiful aqua-blue world, when the Voyager II pictures were initially released.  I was captivated by the strange, faraway world and still am. I kept every Voyager II photo of Neptune from the headlines and even started painting the planet with watercolor. To this day, images of Neptune, including a painting I copied from the front cover of Newsweek magazine, still adorn the walls of my bedroom.

It was Neptune that first brought me to Amateur Astronomers, Inc., the club I would join many years later. Back in 1989, I did not own a car and had to ask a friend to drive me to the club’s observatory on one of its open public nights. As the volunteers led everyone to the club’s two telescopes for observations, I turned to one of them and specifically asked that he show me Neptune. The stunned volunteer acted as if I had asked to see a planet orbiting another star. In all his years of volunteering, no one had come in asking to view Neptune, he said. My request was not possible.

In retrospect, it is unlikely that no one ever asked to view Neptune. Experienced observers in the club likely had seen it many times while newcomers are usually shown the most common and frequently visible objects, which for planets means Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. More likely, Neptune was not visible from Earth at that particular time.

Twenty years later, as a club member, I finally fulfilled my wish. Through the eyepiece of a member’s telescope, on a clear night, I took my first direct look at the tiny blue dot that was a world that had captured my heart.

Depending on where it is in its orbit in relation to Earth and the Sun, Neptune can be observed though not with the naked eye. Binoculars or a telescope are needed. This article in Universe Today shows its current position, the position in which it was first discovered: http://www.universetoday.com/87392/happy-anniversary-neptune/ . Special photos of Neptune taken by Hubble for the occasion can be seen here: http://www.universetoday.com/87416/hubbles-new-views-of-neptune/

Just about every one of the books about Pluto I have reviewed discusses the discovery of Neptune in various degrees of detail. Anyone who wants an even more in-depth account can find it in the book The Neptune File by Tom Standage, published in 2001 and available through Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/NEPTUNE-FILE-PENGUIN-PRESS-SCIENCE/dp/0140294643/ref=wl_it_dp_o?ie=UTF8&coliid=I2477XL9Z6QZJF&colid=I2I4WCVK3I5Y

Happy Anniversary of Discovery, Neptune!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

NASA - SOFIA Successfully Observes Challenging Pluto Occultation

NASA - SOFIA Successfully Observes Challenging Pluto Occultation

The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, continues to play a key role helping us unravel the mysteries of Pluto. Clyde Tombaugh would be proud!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

See for Yourself: Videos and Transcripts of the 2006 IAU Discussion and Vote

Thanks to Lars Lindbergh Christensen, IAU Press Officer, videos of the 2006 General Assembly, where the controversial planet definition debate and vote took place, are once again available online. They can be watched at the site of the links or downloaded for later viewing. If your computer is slow, you may want to download to avoid the video constantly pausing, which can happen when it is played on the site.

I believe it is important for anyone interested in this issue to know as much as possible about what went on during this General Assembly. Journalists are all about the public right to know since information is power, and with sufficient information, people can judge what happened for themselves instead of having to hear about it secondhand.

As research for my book, I watched all four videos; however, the most important one is Session 2, which took place on August 24, 2006. This is the session where the issue of planet definition was discussed and ultimately voted on.

The videos do not constitute the whole of the conference, as only the General Assembly sessions and not the many individual workshops, were recorded.

Here are the links. Watch and decide for yourself if these proceedings were fair, scientific, and thorough. All emphases in quotes are mine. Editorial comments between quotes are italicized and bolded.

2006 IAU General Assembly Videos

This is the opening ceremony of the 26th IAU General Assembly, which took place on Tuesday, August 15, 2006. Note that in his opening address, then IAU president Ron Ekers made the following comments about the planet definition discussion, which all knew would be a centerpiece of this conference.

Ekers cited “intense public pressure and intense pressure from the press” on the planet debate as a rationale for the IAU taking up the issue.

“We have set up groups of not just astronomers, but historians, people from outreach, science writers and educators to discuss this issue. Tomorrow, in the GA newspaper, you will read about the results of these discussions. Everything has been embargoed until tomorrow. This is certainly not the way the IAU normally works, but I hope you will accept that in this case, with the enormous outside pressure, we felt it was the best course of action.”

“You have to be fully informed because in this next week and a half, you will have an opportunity to debate what’s being proposed, to give your input, to think about it…it is a complex issue. Think carefully.”

“My final comment is, after this 26th General Assembly in Prague, I think it would be wonderful if instead of the Prague Spring, it could be remembered as the Prague Planet Protocol.”

This is Session 1 of the General Assembly, which took place later on Tuesday, August 15, 2006. This session involved mostly votes on procedural matters regarding membership, voting by national vs. individual members, dues structure, etc. A vote was held admitting Thailand, Mongolia, and Lebanon to the IAU.

Two interesting comments are of note from this session.


An unidentified participant stated: It is very important to couple this decision (assigning votes on scientific matters to individual members rather than national members, where each country has only one vote) with electronic voting because that way it will be open to all members.”

Ron Ekers then replied: “The Executive Committee could handle this through the working rules. We’ll take this as a recommendation.”

Significantly, the IAU has still not set up electronic voting. At its 2009 General Assembly, a promise was made to “look into” this matter.

In the vote to change the dues structure, Ekers admitted: It is with great embarrassment that we have to under our statutes and by laws deny votes to poor countries with few members."

This was in response to a complaint by a representative from Uruguay, who said: “Our country was not able to contribute to IAU last few years. It is very expensive to pay fees for countries with only a few members.”

Oddbjørn Engvold, a representative of the Executive Committee, noted the specific reason for the IAU taking up the issue of defining the term “planet.”

Engvold said: "The boundaries between a major planet and a minor planet have never been defined. Pluto at discovery was thought to be larger than the Earth, so there was still not a problem. Even with the current value of the size of Pluto, it would not have been a problem because the gap from Pluto to Ceres is still large. If it were not for the discovery of trans-Neptunian objects, which now at least one is larger than Pluto…this is of great interest and it has consumed a lot of time and work in the executive, which has taken steps which has taken steps with the aim to reach a decision here at this General Assembly."

Note that the “need” to distinguish between major and minor planets is attributed solely to the discovery of a trans-Neptunian body larger than Pluto, the object now known as Eris. Since Eris has since been found to not be larger than Pluto, the essential reason for the vote could be said to be invalidated.

The IAU total membership was announced as Total IAU membership 9785, from 87 countries.


If you watch only one of these four sessions, it should be this one, Session 2, which took place on August 24, 2006. There is significant discussion, and there are many questions; unfortunately, those who commented or asked questions did not state their names, so in many cases, their identities are unclear unless someone recognizes them. The session is presided over by Resolutions Committee member Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

At about 28 minutes into the video, the discussion begins. Note that by this last day of the conference, of the 2,500 original attendees, only 424 are left. The many empty seats are clearly noticeable.

I transcribed the entire session; however, since it is long, I will present only a few noteworthy highlights.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell began by stating the following (all emphases are mine):

“I want to start by making sure that we all have the same documents. If you came in by that door (gestures to her left from the stage), and were one of the first people in, you may have been given a white sheet with a resolution in English on it. That white sheet is wrong! (laughter)…It’s a previous version of the resolution. The definitive English resolution is in today’s newspaper on the back page, and we will also have it up on the screen. If you prefer a French version, you should have picked up a white sheet at the door with a French version of the resolution. So I hope now we all have the same text, at least to start with.

I’m very quickly going to ask you to amend your copies, but before I get to that, let me say a little bit more about the processes. If you read your newspaper carefully, you would have seen that during the lunch break, we were available in the IAU stand, in the exhibit area, and several people came to me there with very sensible suggestions. I have cleared these suggestions with the executive officers and would like now to ask you to make some amendments in your newspaper copy. So you will need a pen or a pencil, and we will get them up on the screen in due course…

Resolution 5a, Section 2 starts, “A dwarf planet.” Could you put dwarf planet in inverted commas—put quotation marks around dwarf planet. It is a definition. The same phrase occurs in Footnote 2, and it occurs in Resolution 6a near the beginning of 6a. So in 5a Part 2, 5a footnote 2, and in 6a, please put inverted commas or quotation marks around dwarf planet…

There has been a comment, and I think it is a correct comment, that the order in which we have the resolutions printed is not the order in which some countries would do the business. That is true… We don’t have a lot of choice because the reason for printing this material was so that you’d know how we run the business, and if you are seriously uncomfortable, I’m not sure we can run the business…”

Note the confusion over resolutions, definitions, and procedure. Most participants did not see this resolution until that morning.

I suggest that for the moment, we run with dwarf planet in inverted commas. This would be a recommendation for IAU usage. The rest of the world will…who knows (throws open her arms in a “who knows” gesture). Maybe the rest of the world will evolve a very suitable term. But I think for today’s discussion, we need to stick with the term dwarf planet although I accept all the points you make.”

Note here that Bell Burnell says the decision is for internal IAU usage, with no requirement or expectation that the rest of the world accept it.

Bell Burnell continued: “You will notice that the heading of the resolution is “definition of a planet in the solar system. We originally hoped to be able to define planet more widely, but we found it too difficult to manage appropriate wording on the timescale that we had. So today, we are talking only about objects in the solar system. We do know that there are other planets beyond our solar system. We are just not looking at them today.”

Here, she admits the IAU chose to act hastily, preferring the absurdity of excluding exoplanets altogether, ironically, at a time when exoplanets are being discovered with increasing rapidity. The priority is not on thoroughness or accuracy, but on getting something done quickly.

There was also significant confusion and inconsistency as to whether the footnotes count as part of the resolutions. One participant asked, “Last Friday, you said we are not voting on the footnotes. So according to that gentleman, Neptune is maybe not a planet in your definition, you’re referring to the footnote to say yes. So we either vote on the footnotes or not, but you cannot just decide when it’s in favor of your solution or not.”

Bell Burnell responded, “But I think the gentleman had a different question, and I’m sorry that in my introduction, I forgot to mention this. We were at one point trying to say that the footnotes are not part of the resolution. I think that position is not tenable. It is a stupid position. Therefore, the footnotes are now part of the resolution.  On my apologies for forgetting to say that in the introduction. Please look at the footnotes as well as the main texts. Is that clear now?”

Significant unhappiness with an arbitrary and capricious process was expressed by numerous individuals. Here is one:

“I’m not a planetary scientist, so I’m speaking for a wider group of astronomers here perhaps, many of whom have been fascinated by the debate this week and have learned a lot about the solar system that we never knew before. And like many people I have been very unhappy with the process… it would be disastrous for astronomy if we come away from the General Assembly with nothing. We will be regarded as complete idiots. And even it it’s the executive’s fault if that happens, the rest of us will pay the consequences… we all, whatever the past history of this process, that we may feel resentful about, we have to support this motion, overwhelmingly I think, and then we have to go away and sell it in a very positive way.”

This statement clearly shows greater concern with how the IAU is publicly perceived than with adopting a thorough and scientifically accurate definition.

Also note the confusion during the voting. Counting is done by hand by volunteers, and in several cases, members voting each particular way have to take turns standing up because of confusion about the count.

Resolution 5a, which established the three classes of planets, dwarf planets, and small solar system bodies, passed overwhelmingly. Resolution 5b, which would have avoided the entire mess by including the eight largest “classical” planets and dwarf planets under the planet category, was voted down in a much more divided vote. It was supported by 91 people, meaning of the 424 present, 333 determined that dwarf planets are not planets. That’s 333 who in retrospect are viewed as having spoken for the entire science of astronomy and for all seven billion people in the world.

Subsequently, Resolution 6a, which focused on Pluto, labeling it and all trans-Neptunian dwarf planets as a new special class of solar system bodies, was approved 237-157. Resolution 6b, which proposed to label this new class of objects “plutonian objects,” failed, with 183 voting for and 186 voting against.

Significantly, even after the votes on 5a and 5b, confusion continued to the point that some people clearly did not understand what they had voted on!

According to one member: “I believe that part c of items 1and 2 in the resolution 5a, that was just passed, was intended to draw a distinction between planets and dwarf planets, and clearly, Ceres could be interpreted as a dwarf planet under that language. But in the case of Pluto, I don’t know that it is quite so clear… under your definition, I don’t think it is so clear because I think one can argue that Pluto has cleared the immediate vicinity of its own orbit. And so therefore, I would recommend defeat of this particular resolution 6a, and as this resolution was introduced with the paradigm of maintaining public support and maintaining the tradition of history, I further recommend that footnote 1 of 5a be amended to include Pluto.

To which, Bell Burnell responded: “We cannot at this stage amend 5a at this meeting. We have to run through the program as printed. We are looking at resolution 6a. Do you have a question for clarification?”

Once again, pressure of time trumps process, science, thoroughness, and accuracy.

This is the closing ceremony that took place later on Thursday, August 24, 2006. It consists of a report from the IAU Finance Committee, an official invitation from Brazil to the 2009 General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro, and election of new committees, including a new executive committee and president.

Do these proceedings seem like a good way to do science? You decide.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When is an Asteroid Not an Asteroid? - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

When is an Asteroid Not an Asteroid? - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Please take the time to read this. Long thought to be an asteroid, Vesta is actually a highly developed, complex world, illustrating once again that there is far more diversity in our solar system and others than ever assumed. As stated in an earlier entry, Vesta and Pallas are quite different from asteroids and most Kuiper Belt Objects, and as such, should be classed in a category of their own. The suggested term for these two worlds is "protoplanets," meaning planetary embryos, or objects that were in the process of becoming planets when their development was halted, possibly due to the gravitational influence of Jupiter. More information is coming, as the Dawn mission will arrive at Vesta in July 2011.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

AccuWeather.com - Astronomy | The Controversy About Pluto

AccuWeather.com - Astronomy The Controversy About Pluto

Kudos to Accuweather Astronomy Blog for presenting my the other side of the Pluto debate, along with my arguments refuting those of Mike Brown.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Horizons Pluto Mission: January 2011 Talk by Dr. Alan Stern

New Horizons Pluto Mission: Jan. 2011 Talk by Dr. Alan Stern

This is a very informative, thorough, and entertaining presentation by Dr. Alan Stern on the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. It was given at the SETI Institute in January 2011 and is well worth the time watching.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Mercury Has A Tail? There Goes Another Argument Against Pluto

Comet or planet? Supporters of Pluto’s demotion sometimes argue that Pluto is more like a giant comet than a small planet. Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson has noted that if Pluto orbited close to the Sun, it would grow a tail like a comet. “That’s no way for a planet to behave!” he declared humorously.

It isn’t? If this is true, then Mercury is not a planet but a comet, as it has a tail! NASA’s Stereo mission imaged a long yellow-orange tail composed of glowing gas, a tail more than 100 times the radius of Mercury itself emerging from the planet. The tail trails the solar wind.

While Stereo is not the first to image a tail coming from Mercury, it is the first to accurately depict just how elongated that tail is, a total of 1.6 million miles long. The tail is believed to be made up of sodium atoms stripped from Mercury’s thin atmosphere by radiation from the Sun.

Interestingly, the Stereo satellites that imaged this elongated tail had been designed for observing the Sun rather than its innermost planet.

Having a feature in common with comets does not make Mercury a comet. Its composition is not that of a “dirty snowball” loosely held together. It does not have an orbit that will eventually result in its breaking up, as comets do. And it is much larger than any comet is.

Pluto may be smaller than Mercury, but it is significantly larger than the largest known comets, and it too has a stable orbit around the Sun that will never result in the type of mass loss seen in comets.

In fact, some giant exoplanets in close orbits around their stars exhibit tails as well due to sublimation of their atmospheres.

There is no logic in selectively picking and choosing individual characteristics to classify different types of objects as alike when they are not. One could say Jupiter is a star rather than a planet because its composition is mostly hydrogen and helium, much like that of the Sun and unlike that of other planets except for Saturn.

The flaw in that argument is that it overlooks a larger issue separating stars from planets: stars are self-luminous, creating their own light through hydrogen fusion; planets do not create their own light, as even those the size of Jupiter are not massive enough for fusion to take place. That requires a mass approximately 18 times that of Jupiter.

Similarly, classification of either Mercury or Pluto as comets ignores the larger differences between these two objects and comets, which far outweigh the similarities.

We are just now beginning to realize how diverse the universe is. That diversity will undoubtedly create a need for new categories and subcategories to accurately describe a plethora of new discoveries.
Anyone interested can read more about Mercury’s tail at http://www.astroearth.net/planet-mercurys-tail/ .

Friday, February 18, 2011

Happy 81st Anniversary of Discovery, Pluto

Eighty-one years ago today, on February 18, 1930, planet Pluto was discovered by 24-year-old Clyde Tombaugh, whose keen vision picked out a tiny object that moved from one position to another on two photographic plates taken six days apart the previous month.

Employed as a junior astronomer, Tombaugh, who at the time had only a high school education, had been working at the Lowell Observatory for a little over a year, taking large photographic images of various regions in the sky suspected to harbor the yet-undiscovered planet, then comparing plates of the same region taken within a few days of one another with a machine known as a blink comparator. The goal was to find an object that moved in respect to the numerous background stars on the plates, in an effort to find a predicted planet beyond Neptune.

As research for the book I am writing about Pluto, I am reading an account of the discovery written by Tombaugh himself in his 1980 publication Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto. The book was co-written by British astronomy writer Patrick Moore, who provided the chapters detailing the history of planet discovery beginning with William Herschel’s finding of Uranus.

Reading Tombaugh’s first hand account of his life at the Lowell Observatory and the process that led to the discovery of Pluto is fascinating. Very quickly, it becomes clear that the status of Pluto was not unquestioned until 1992, 1999, or 2006. In fact, the status of Pluto was questioned from almost the day of its discovery. Unable to resolve it into a disk even with their most powerful telescopes, astronomers at Lowell wondered whether Tombaugh had really found the moon of a larger planet. They understood almost immediately that Pluto was not the gas giant predicted by Percival Lowell, the observatory’s founder, who had conducted the search until he died in 1916. Tombaugh also notes arguments by some astronomers of the day who believed Pluto to be a large comet or asteroid, though he rejects both notions.

We commonly hear supporters of Pluto’s demotion argue that Pluto was believed universally to be a planet at the time of its discovery and that the 2006 demotion is based on new, better understanding of the solar system. Yet this clearly was not the case. Pluto was classed as a planet partly because of the strong insistence of the Lowell Observatory staff as a means of redeeming the reputation of their institution, which had lost credibility due to Percival Lowell’s determination to prove the existence of intelligent life on Mars.

Of course, this does not mean Pluto is not a planet. Similarly, those who argue that if Pluto were discovered today, it would never be considered a planet to begin with are also incorrect. Surprisingly, the degree of uncertainty and the amount of unknowns surrounding mysterious Pluto have not changed much in 81 years! The arguments from 1930 are eerily similar to those today, and this is true for both sides of the debate. It is therefore a better guess that had Pluto been discovered today, it’s classification would be determined largely by the discoverer and the institution where the discovery was made.

A little known fact about Eris, which was discovered in 2005, is that it was found by a team of three astronomers. While one member of that team, Mike Brown, actively opposes planet status for Eris and Pluto, another, Dr. David Rabinowitz, signed Dr. Alan Stern’s petition rejecting the IAU planet definition. Even the discoverers of Eris do not agree on what the object is.

Tombaugh, who died in 1997 three weeks before his 91st birthday, reports a fascinating statement by Dr. Harlow Shapley of the Harvard College Observatory, an astronomer famous for his part in the 1920 debate on the question of whether the universe contains just the Milky Way or numerous galaxies. Shapley ended up being wrong in his view that the entire universe is the Milky Way, but he showed unusual insight and forethought in his characterization of Pluto, questioning whether Pluto was the first in a new class of solar system objects and wondering whether similar bodies remained undiscovered in the outer solar system. He made these statements in 1930, only months after Pluto’s discovery!

The reality, therefore, is little has changed in this eight-decade debate. Astronomers on both sides essentially use the same arguments today as they did in 1930. There is no more scientific consensus today on just what Pluto is than there was then. Admittedly, we have learned more about Pluto’s size and composition, discovered three moons, learned that there never were perturbations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune to begin with (the reason a planet beyond Neptune was sought), and most importantly, launched a spacecraft set to rendezvous with Pluto in only four more years.

Then, for the first time, Pluto will be forced to reveal its many secrets. The new data will tell us a lot about Pluto, but ultimately, that data will still be subject to interpretation. It likely won’t change the mind of Mike Brown, who says that the only way he could be persuaded to view Pluto as a planet is if New Horizons finds a giant billboard on the surface saying, “I’m a planet!” In other words, no matter how much we learn about this enigmatic world, those facts will still be filtered through subjective, limited, human minds, in some cases, minds that have been firmly made up in advance.

On a personal note, to coincide with my book and with this 81st anniversary of Pluto’s discovery, I have decided, based on the recommendation of good friends, to move this blog to a more professional blogging site. LiveJournal is wonderful, but it does not have many of the features that Blogger does. When I wrote my first entry on September 1, 2006, it was intended as a one-time thing, not as an ongoing blog. Obviously, that has changed as the fight for Pluto continues.

I have copied and pasted all blog entries from that first one into the new site, http://laurelsplutoblog.blogspot.com/ . Unfortunately, I was unable to figure out how to move the comments associated with each entry under the names of those who made them. However, all entries and responding comments will remain on the LiveJournal site. Since this site has been heavily publicized and is familiar to many readers, I will continue to post entries here as well, and http://laurele.livejournal.com/ will remain active as a duplicate site, and new entries will be posted there too. If any “techies” know how to link two sites so that visiting one automatically directs readers to another, please let me know, as I would love to link the two sites this way but have no clue how one might do this.

Special thanks to Stephanie Joy Smith for the suggestion of moving to Blogger. I hope readers enjoy this new site and that it facilitates better two-way communication.

Happy 81st anniversary of discovery to once and always planet Pluto! Time to celebrate!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Kepler Finds 1,200 Possible Exoplanets

Interestingly, many of these planets and systems have orbital configurations no one previously thought possible.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/science/03planet.html