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Thursday, September 21, 2023

End of the Chase for New Horizons?

End of the Chase for New Horizons?: How the journey taken from start to implementation of the incredible New Horizons mission is facing derailment, somethig that has echoes from the past.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Pluto Resistance Continues

Here we are. It’s that day again—the day that will live in infamy, when 424 IAU members engaged in a throwback to the 16th century and attempted to impose a very flawed planet definition on all of humanity. At that time, there were six billion plus people on Earth. Today, there are over 8 billion.

Yet the bigger mistake and public disservice was not by the IAU but by most of the media and educational establishment. By giving the IAU definition the force of law instead of recognizing it as just one view among several in use, they too engaged in medieval behavior.

In an upcoming entry, I will share a comprehensive Power Point presentation by writer Jack Mitch Culberson. Some of the images come from this blog, but most are from other sources. He accurately described the IAU vote of 2006 the way the media should have done.

Culberson stated, “The IAU no longer considers Pluto a planet.” THAT is what should have been and should be reported—not “Pluto stopped being a planet.” Not only is the latter statement equal to science by decree of authority; it also completely glosses over the fact that an equal number of planetary scientists rejected that definition and to this day, prefer the geophysical definition, according to which all dwarf planets are a subclass of planets.

When Galileo looked through his telescope in 1610 and saw mountains on the Moon, the phases of Venus, and the moons of Jupiter, scientist Cesar Cremonini declared him wrong and refused to even look through his telescope. After all, Aristotle had already determined the Moon is a perfect sphere. If one already knows the “truth,” why look at additional evidence?

In 2015, 105 years later, the IAU did essentially the same thing Cremonini did, with the same inaction. Having made up their minds that a planet has to “clear its orbit,” they refused to look with new eyes at data about Pluto sent back by New Horizons, which clearly showed it to have complex planetary processes. The 2005 discovery of Eris was viewed as new data that merited a redefinition of the term planet, but the first ever images and data that revealed Pluto to be a planet, did not merit that same consideration to them.

And the media mostly enabled their denial.

The news isn’t all bad. While this should never have gone on so long, today, 17 years later, most planetary scientists ignore the IAU definition in favor of the geophysical one. Now, we need to get the media, educational establishment, and other venues to recognize that this issue remains unsettled and that the IAU position should not be treated as objective truth but as one side of an ongoing debate.

Just today, Celestron sent an email describing today as “Pluto Demoted Day,” with a link to an article that states only the IAU position without even acknowledging the geophysical definition.

For many of us, today is not “Pluto Demoted Day.” It’s “Pluto Resistance Day.” And we need to get the word out there that there is another view, that there is science behind classifying Pluto as a planet, and that no individual or group should be given the right to impose its view on all humanity.

We will never give up, and we will never stop fighting this wrong. Galileo was eventually vindicated, and so will adherents of the geophysical planet definition.

The resistance continues.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Please sign this petition to save New Horizons as a planetary/Kuiper Belt mission

On April 12 of this year, I wrote about a NASA proposal to prematurely defund New Horizons as a planetary mission and to transfer control of the spacecraft to the agency’s heliophysics division, a move that would replace the current mission team, which have given decades of service to it.

Now, you can help advocate for New Horizons remaining a planetary mission through the years it traverses the Kuiper Belt by signing this petition organized by the National Space Society.

For no clear budgetary or scientific reason, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is considering ending it as a planetary mission and transferring control of it from the agency’s planetary science division to its heliophysics division.

Eventually, when it leaves the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will concentrate solely on the heliophysics of the outer solar system. But for now, it still has sufficient fuel to continue studying the Kuiper Belt for another five years. It is the only vehicle in place to conduct in situ study of this region. Arbitrarily ending the planetary mission half a decade early wastes a unique opportunity that neither NASA nor any other space agency is likely to have for decades.

The petition closes on Monday, September 4, which is Labor Day, and the National Space Society hopes to get up to 10,000 signatures by then to stand up for New Horizons remaining a planetary mission until it leaves the Kuiper Belt. So we need to act quickly.

If you are American, these are our tax dollars at work, and we deserve a say in how they are used. This is the only chance in decades to explore the Kuiper Belt and possibly find a third close flyby target. We should not waste it!

And if you’re of a different nationality and a supporter of planetary exploration, you can still sign this petition and are urged to do so. New Horizons made headlines around the world when it flew by Pluto and then by Kuiper Belt Arrokoth. Its exploration of the Kuiper Belt is not just an American project; it is a human one.

Please take this action to save New Horizons as a planetary mission and share this petition with as many people as possible by September 4. Thank you in advance.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

John Vester Followup Article on "Pluto: Planet or Not"

The following is a followup by John Vester addressing responses to his original article published in Analog, titled "Pluto: Planet or Not."

Since the time the essay was published in Analog magazine, other than a few friends telling me they thought it made sense, I have received some pointed critiques of the science.

I also received some links to relevant scientific papers:

1) A Geophysical Planet Definition

2) Reductionist vs. Folk Taxonomies in Planetary Science

3) An Organically Grown Planet Definition

4) Ignore the IAU! Dwarf Planets are Planets Too

Five main objections to my Linguistic Planetary Definition have come to my attention.

  1. The proposed linguistic definition lacks simplicity because some objects that would be considered planets by this scheme can become captured into orbit around another object, making it now a moon by my scheme.

ANSWER – This objection is a defense of the misguided attempt, on both sides, to infuse the definition of the word “planet” with too much baggage in support of the astronomer’s or the planetary scientist’s preferences.

The essence of the linguistic definition is simplicity. A planet is simply anything that orbits a star. If some object changes from one category to another, it should not be a problem. When a tadpole changes to a frog, or a caterpillar into a butterfly, there is no confusion. So if a rock changes from being an asteroid to being a moon, it should not be upsetting. It happens at the subcategory level without complaint. An asteroid sometimes comes back to life, as it were, and is treated as and called a comet.

  1. My “Power to the people!” line drew some ire. It’s up to science, I am told, to raise the public’s understanding of nature. The public did not accept the notion of Earth as a planet, but Copernicus and science prevailed, even though the public was wrong. We shouldn’t be dumbing down scientific terminology to satisfy the views of the public.

ANSWER – Setting aside the fact that the Copernican revolution was a revolution in understanding, not a revolution in nomenclature, the linguistic approach does reclaim some words for the language, allowing science full rein over all the subcategories.

The overarching categories, like planet, moon, and star, ought to be based on simple, discriminating principles, such as what it orbits, or whether it has achieved nuclear fusion in its core. To burden the word “Planet” with questions of shape, geologic activity, clearing of orbits, etc. serves no purpose in helping educate the public. These confusing stipulations may please the scientists on those teams, but will only result in the division and the gnashing of teeth, as we see now regarding Pluto.

  1. I have been accused of including hearsay by relating the story of “snow” and the languages of the Eskimos/Inuits.

ANSWER – While I included the words “It is said” in an attempt to make it clear that I make no claim as to the truth of the story, it does illustrate an important point. As one becomes more intimately involved with something, clarity of communication demands more precise language about it.

As we enter a golden age of astronomy, thanks to incredible probes, like New Horizons, and fantastic telescopes, like JWST, and which we will continue to launch, and as findings, news, and discussions of mission discoveries continue to proliferate, we need to clarify out terminology.

The scientific community is in a similar position to what Zoology was like in the 1700s. What we need is a modern day Carl Linaeus to develop a taxonomy for space objects. But the overarching category names should not be discarded. In spite of Linaeus, we still talk about horses and dogs. And we still observe that there are plant, animal and mineral kingdoms. How is star, planet and moon different?

  1. Fault has been found with my statement that originally all planets were mere specs of light in the night sky. On the contrary, the sun and moon are held up as proof.

ANSWER – This proves nothing. Back then, as now, the sun and moon are not, neither of them, planets. The GPD folks are eager to start calling large moons planets, which seems to me a step in the wrong direction.

  1. I have been taken to task for ignoring or missing “one of the greatest insights in scientific history,” which is that space objects large enough to be complex and, as Galileo put it, to be homes for life and civilizations, are planets. During the 1700s and 1800s, science dropped the “homes for life and civilizations” part, but they kept the size and complexity part. This important central insight is a central part of the GPD argument.

ANSWER – Let’s notice that science gets it wrong too. Galileo’s speculations about life and civilizations were dropped so as to keep lifeless planets in the planet club. Note too that the GPD would have us referring to our moon, and others, as planets because they show evidence of geologic activity. How confusing compared to simply referring to what something orbits, or compared to what we have seen and heard in hundreds of years of literature and song.

Let things like size and shape and complexity be handled in research and at the subcategory level. If the GPD wants Luna (or Titan, or Enceladus, etc.)to be planets, what happens if the supposed geologic activity completely ceases? And what if it starts up again? The chance exists that this will happen at some point and require new GPD designations. But that’s the crux of Objection #1!

With all that said, it occurred to me that there is a sort of grey area that should be appreciated.

My proposal is from a spoken language stand point. Objections to these ideas comes from a science stand point. While science may feel an obligation to reach down and educate the public on what science has learned about how the world works, I resist the notion that science always knows best.

We, the people, should lay claim to some basic words, like star, planet and moon. If we do not, science can make a mess of things, as they did with the word “metal.” In common parlance we know what metals are. Hard, shiny, bendy. Good enough for everyday use. Chemistry has expanded on the definition to mean any element or alloy that handles electrons in certain ways. Useful and interesting. But the Astrophysicists use the word to man any element in the periodic table heavier that hydrogen or helium. How is this helpful in educating the public?

In conclusion, the overarching categories, “star,” “planet,” and “moon,” should be the province of the man on the street, with simple, easy to understand criteria. All the many subcategories should be the province of science.

Friday, July 14, 2023

"Planet or Not" Guest Blog by John Vester


Today, July 14, 2023, is the eighth anniversary of New Horizons' successful Pluto flyby in 2015. In celebration of this occasion, I am sharing a guest blog by John Vester, which was initially published in the March/April 2021 issue of Analog magazine.                                                                                                       

Planet or Not?
by John J. Vester

          In 2015, after 16 years of planning and herculean effort, Alan Stern and his team took us all to Pluto aboard the New Horizons planetary probeBut something else that happened in 2006 (the year of the New Horizons launch) cast a slight shadow over the mission, and has since tasked Stern almost as much as the mission itself did…the loss of Pluto’s status as a planet, and the struggle to regain it.

When The International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted to demote Pluto to “dwarf” status, they embarked, Stern argues, on a course for which their membership was unqualified to make pronouncements. The arguments pro and con are many, rage still, and have crystallized into two opposing camps, all of which is brought into clear focus by the April 28, 2019 debate, hosted by the Philosophical Society of Washington DC.1

The IAU Planetary Definition (IPD) has three main parts. 1) A planet orbits the sun, 2) it is large enough to achieve a spherical shape, and 3) a planet clears its orbit of other objects. Against criticism, the adherents of the IPD mainly defend the vote on procedural grounds (although they admit it probably should not have been planned behind closed doors). Naming and science, they say, are two different things and naming is important. It helps science function by creating a common language. (It should be pointed out, though, that the IAU did not name anything, but merely attempted to change the definition of an existing word.)

Stern maintains that expertise is also important, and promotes his Geophysical Planetary Definition (GPD). He points out that planetary scientists, who were significantly absent from the vote in Prague, and who are more qualified than astronomers to decide on planetary nomenclature, do not use or recognize the IPD. The GPD considers a planet 1) to be a sub-stellar object that never underwent fusion, and 2) has enough mass to assume a spherical shape.

The IPD is more concerned with the dynamics of an object…where it is and what its orbit is and does. The GPD is more about the object itself…what it is regardless of where it is. The IPD confines itself to objects in our solar system, while the GPD applies to exoplanets equally. The IPD’s clearing of orbits requirement has the odd consequence that the same object can be considered a planet at one distance from the sun, but not if farther away. GPD proponents are quick to point out that under the IPD’s clearing of orbits stipulation, even the Earth would not qualify as a planet.

Both definitions set up complex requirements for entry into the planet club. One of the reasons given in support of the IPD is the seemingly absurd notion that we need to limit the number of planets so school children won’t have so many to memorize. Yet there are still 50 states and the periodic table still lists north of a hundred elements.

Both definitions are a little vague about moons, rogue planets and brown dwarfs. Each side snipes at the other, basing some of their arguments on outlier cases such as these. This is no way to establish overarching categories.

There has to be a simple way out of this morass, and maybe there is. Here’s an immodest proposal that does not offer either side a conclusive victory, but does not condemn either to final defeat. All combatants agree that this Pluto/planet dustup is a categorization problem. But more than that, I think it is a language problem.

So my proposal, a linguistic solution, is this: Anything orbiting any star is a planet, and anything orbiting a planet is a moon. That simple.

Stern defends the GPD by pointing out that neutron stars, pulsars, and red giants are all still considered stars. (This points up a conundrum in the IPD—calling something it does not consider to be a planet a “dwarf planet.”) To illustrate his point, Stern shows a picture of a Chihuahua and a Great Dane next to each other. Although quite different in size and appearance, we still call them both dogs. There would be no value (not to mention the tidal wave of push back) if scientists demanded we all start calling these animals, instead, canis lupus familiaris.

Imagine the uproar if the IAU began to tinker with the definition of sun, or star. For many things, the common name in the language is best.

So it is with the word “planet,” which originally was a language thing. It meant “wanderer.” It had nothing to do with size. Back then, the planets were mere pin pricks of light that moved (wandered) relative to the background stars (and also exhibited weird apparent retrograde motions at times). But we know that planets don’t wander. They have circumscribed perambulations…they pace. So “planet” has been decoupled somewhat from its original, literal meaning.

To understand the proposed linguistic rationale being offered here, consider the word “snow”. Since we do not live constantly with snow, the English language (along with many/most others) has only one word to encompass the entirety of this seemingly homogenous phenomenon (though extremely varied in the details of its many manifestations). But expertise does matter. Therefore Eskimos/Inuits, who live their whole lives in an intimate relationship with snow, have, it is said, a great many words, one for each of its important forms, all subsumed under the general category that we label “snow.”

With our quickly expanding knowledge of the bodies in our solar system, planets are no longer mere specks of light wandering the sky, but real worlds. This has resulted, during the last forty years, in a huge increase in the number of scientists who consider themselves planetary scientists, not astronomers, and very few of them are members of the IAU, and this is telling.

But the expertise of scientists, whether astronomers or planetary scientists, is not entirely relevant here. They commandeered the word planet from the language of the common people. It is the language (therefore people, not scientists) that has jurisdiction. The Chihuahua/Great Dane example is absolutely relevant. Great Dane is a subcategory of dog. As for heavenly bodies, we know enough about them now, thanks to all those planetary scientists, that we should be more concerned with subcategories. We already speak of the “rocky planets,” the “gas giants,” and the “ice giants.” We understand all these to belong under the heading of “planet.” Why not bring asteroids, comets, Trojans, KBOs, TNOs, and Oort Cloud objects into the same grouping? They should all take their places as subcategories of planets.

This is certainly simpler than the tortuous redefining attempted by the IAU. Clearing an orbit is irrelevant by this linguistic definition. Objects in uncleared orbits would themselves be different flavors of planets.

Spherical” is a matter of degree, not kind. Even if it mattered, Ceres and Pallas, once considered planets, are today in limbo as spherical asteroids. They are all planets again by the proposed new scheme, and maybe we’ll call them “rocky dwarfs.” As for Pluto, Eris, Sedna, etc., how about “icy dwarfs?”

Size is also irrelevant by this proposed revision to the definition of the larger category, planet. But this shouldn’t create difficulties in discussing these objects. Asteroids would be planets we call “asteroids” (its subcategory). A rock or even a grain of sand orbiting the sun is a planet that we would call a grain of sand or a “meteor.” Once it burns up in a planetary atmosphere or hits the ground and stops orbiting the sun, it is no longer a planet and we might call it part of a “meteor shower” or a “meteorite.”

Even the outlier cases can be easily dealt with by this suggested protocol. The GPD allows that some moons can be considered “worlds” or “planets.” The only way a moon could be proclaimed a planet would be if the center of mass, around which both objects revolve, falls, not inside the larger body, but in the space that separates them. Then it is a double planet, or a binary.

Rogue planets, called in the GPD “unbound planets” become “unbound bodies.”

A brown dwarf is simply a planet if it never initiated fusion in its core. If it doesn’t orbit a star, it is an unbound body.

There will, of course, be scientific hairsplitting on whether an object belongs in one subcategory or another. For the rest of us, though, it will be much simpler to know that they are all planets, simply by virtue of the fact that they orbit a star. One of the criteria Stern offers for recognizing a good naming solution is that it is simple, logical, and intuitive. What could be easier for the general public to understand and embrace than this language-based solution?

The IAU is probably the best place to do the subcategory hairsplitting (provided the planetary scientists are represented and have their say). For my money, the IAU should pass a resolution adopting this idea, and also abdicating their jurisdiction over the overarching category, planet.

Words matter. So, by this proposal, planet would become the people’s word again. Power to the people!


Wednesday, April 12, 2023

New Horizons Should Remain a Planetary Mission


A little-known proposal is threatening the future of NASA’s New Horizons mission, and for reasons unknown, the space press has not reported on this development whatsoever.

This needs to change, as the public has the right to know that one of this country’s most successful planetary missions is in danger of being shut down before its time.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons has captured breathtaking images of Pluto and its large moon Charon, as well as a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) one billion miles beyond it.

From the beginning, New Horizons has been a planetary mission. Its exploration of not just Pluto but primitive KBOs that have remained unchanged since the solar system’s earliest days continues to reveal new insights into the solar system’s formation and evolution.

Now, New Horizons as a planetary mission is facing premature cancellation. For no clear budgetary or scientific reason, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is considering ending it as a planetary mission and transferring control of it from the agency’s planetary science division to its heliophysics division.

Incredibly, this would remove the current New Horizons team, many of whom have dedicated decades to seeing it through from an idea to launch to Pluto and beyond. Instead, it would put the spacecraft under the control of a new heliophysics team.

When a similar move was done with the Voyagers once they ran out of planets to visit, the mission’s leadership and most of its team was allowed to remain in control. It makes little sense to remove New Horizons from the loyal, dedicated group who fought for it every step of the way and are now guiding it through the uncharted territory of the Kuiper Belt.

Such a move is nothing less than a slap in the face to a team that has poured their minds and hearts into one of NASA’s most successful planetary missions and still have so much more to give.

Eventually, when it leaves the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will concentrate solely on the heliophysics of the outer solar system. But for now, it still has sufficient fuel to continue studying the Kuiper Belt for another five years. It is the only vehicle in place to conduct in situ study of this region. Arbitrarily ending the planetary mission half a decade early wastes a unique opportunity that neither NASA nor any other space agency is likely to have for decades.

Small KBOs like Arrokoth, which New Horizons flew by in 2019, contain the building blocks of the solar system. The New Horizons team has spent the last few years using very large ground-based telescopes to search for a third flyby target, for which the spacecraft has roughly as much fuel as for the Arrokoth flyby.

What sense does it make to throw away the chance to observe yet another KBO up close as well as many others from a distance?

Currently, no other missions to the Kuiper Belt, and none are even being planned. New Horizons is literally our only chance to explore this region of the solar system in situ for decades.

This proposal is not about money. The move would not save any money, replacing one team with another. Neither does it make scientific sense. It is a senseless step that wastes precious resources for no benefit.

New Horizons has had multiple scientific successes because of the hard work, dedication, and passion of its team. We should be rewarding these scientists and engineers, not throwing them away and forfeiting the chance to study this remote, fascinating region of the solar system for another five years.

Why hasn’t the space press reported on this senseless proposal? The public, who fund NASA, deserve to know that the agency is on the verge of making a wasteful, unnecessary move.

New Horizons thrilled children and adults around the world when it revealed the beauty and complexity of Pluto. Today, the public deserves to know that this mission faces premature termination for literally no reason. Space journalists around the world need to tell this story while there is still a chance of preventing this destructive move.