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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Caltech Astronomer Finds Planets in Unusually Intimate Dance around Dying Star - Caltech Media Relations

Once again, an exoplanet discovery illustrates a far greater variety of planets and planetary configurations than the IAU can imagine. These two giants are in a resonant orbit just like Neptune and Pluto. By definition, that means neither "clears its orbit" so neither would be considered a planet according to the IAU definition.

This is just more evidence that we need a broader rather than a narrower definition of the term planet.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Five More Years

Five years from today, New Horizons will be rendezvousing with Pluto, and stunning the world by revealing the first close-ups of the scorned planet, images and data certain to transform our very understanding of this little world at the edge of the solar system.

The data we receive on July 14, 2015 will not be the first the little spacecraft sends from Pluto. Six months earlier, in January 2015, New Horizons will begin taking and sending home its first close-up images of Pluto. And data will continue coming in after the July 14 approach.

The progress of New Horizons can be followed at

The last few months have been quite active on the Pluto front. A video here, , in spite of its mention of the 2006 demotion as fact rather than as one interpretation, provides much useful information about Pluto and ends with announcement of the New Horizons flyby. David J. Eicher of Astronomy magazine provides a video tour of “How We’ll Explore Pluto” here to accompany the magazine’s July 2010 article with the same title.

The “Naming X” contest to name an asteroid, which took place from April 30-May 30, recently announced its winners and runners up, here

According to the “Naming X” press release, “After hundreds of submissions from 34 countries during the course of a month, Naming X, a global online competition launched in honour and memory of Venetia Burney Phair, who named Pluto in 1930, aged 11, reveals its winners and runners up!

In April 2010, Naming X asked people around the globe to suggest a suitable name for a minor planet and a reason why. Applicants were required to adhere to competition guidelines and suggestions were accepted in three categories, under 11 years, +12 years, and schools & groups. The +12 group was open to all ages.

Competition organizers Thilina Heenatigala of Space Renaissance Education Chapter and Ginita Jimenez of Father Films commented, ‘This educational initiative was very successful and got learners thinking creatively; some educators preceded the competition with an activity explaining the definition of a minor planet, facts on characteristics, discovery and naming protocol. Other teachers asked students to imagine a minor planet, then draw and name it. An entire class kindly sent its drawings in to us!’ They add, ‘It has been an honour to have a world class team onboard as advisors, expert panelists and supporters and their endorsement and enthusiasm has been central to the initiative's success. The International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Committee for Small Body Nomenclature’s (CSBN) endorsement gave Naming X a fundamental purpose.’ Winning names are Glissade, suggested by 10-year-old Erica Reed; Erytheia, suggested by 15-year-old Nathan Phillips and Virgil, offered by McKinney High School, USA.

Winners will receive a signed certificate, telescope time care of Bellatrix Observatory, Italy and a copy of the award-winning documentary of Venetia’s story, Naming Pluto and film poster, care of Father Films. Winners’ suggested names will be included in a formal paper to the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Committee for Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN). Special mentions in the form of runners up in each category originated from Belgium, Ghana, India, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom and USA.

The Naming X team is delighted with the international response and may even consider opening its doors for a longer period in 2011 to encourage as many creative scientific thinkers as possible, so watch this space!!" (link mentioned above).
It is my sincerest hope that the teachers who conducted activities on minor planets, their characteristics, discovery and naming protocol conveyed accurately that there is an ongoing debate about the planetary status of dwarf planets and specifically distinguished between “minor planets,” a term used to describe asteroids, and dwarf planets. The latter are small and shaped by chemical bonds while the former are small planets rounded by their own gravity. This is an important distinction children and adults deserve to know.

The reality is that there are hundreds of unnamed asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter as well as centaurs, objects that are half comet/half asteroid in the outer solar system, and Kuiper Belt Objects, both those that qualify as small planets and those that are essentially asteroids. The IAU Committee for Small Body Nomenclature should consider the many other entries, some of which were submitted in memory of entrants’ departed loved ones, for these bodies.

Now that the competition is over, I can proudly report that my suggestion was MadeleineL’Engle, a one-word version of Madeleine L’Engle, a prolific writer who often incorporated astronomy into her novels, many of which convey a message of universal love and peace. She is one of very few writers who could weave both science and spirituality into tales that are fantasy on the surface, but at the same time contain universal truths about the human condition. My favorite writer, she died at age 88 in 2007, and I sincerely hope her name is considered, as she deserves a celestial body named in her honor.

Actually, my initial choice was John Goodricke, the name of a deaf-mute 19th-century amateur astronomer who first discovered Cepheid variable stars at age 19 and unfortunately, died of pneumonia, which he likely caught as a result of his nightly astronomical observations, at age 21. It’s a good thing I checked the database of asteroid names first, as I discovered Goodricke already has an asteroid named for him.

And yes, I still owe readers a review of “Naming Pluto,” the DVD about Venetia Burney that was one of the prizes given to the winners, and of Percival’s Planet, a work of historical fiction by Michael Byers on the race to discover Pluto. Both are upcoming.

New York City’s Inwood Astronomy Project hosted a wonderful discussion on “The Problem with Pluto” on June 5. Speaker Jason Kendall, the Inwood Astronomy club president, pointed out that the only “problem” with Pluto is us, specifically human beings and our need to categorize things. Pluto itself is not experiencing any problems. Our very human problem is trying to fit it into the scheme of what we know, which is only a problem when one assumes there are only two classes of planets, terrestrials and jovians.

While the program was a presentation by Kendall, it morphed into a discussion, something for which I personally bear much responsibility (in other words, I wouldn’t shut up). However, it was a fun, friendly, and lively discussion, not a heated or angry one. Kendall, who is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, provided handouts on the New Horizons mission.

An interesting point was raised during this talk, one that goes back to the question of who decides what definition is used. Kendall discussed past discoveries, emphasizing there was no lack of controversy over many of those going back to Galileo finding the four biggest moons of Jupiter. The discovery of Neptune was so disputed that even today, four astronomers are credited with the accomplishment. Much of this is the same history presented by Dr. David Weintraub in Is Pluto A Planet? and by Alan Boyle in The Case for Pluto.

This history is crucial to understanding the present day debate. Yet today, there is one important additional factor, which is that knowledge previously held sacrosanct by a small academic elite is now available to all at the click of a mouse. This may very well answer the question as to why there was no known outcry over the 19th-century demotion of Ceres. How many people then even knew that Ceres had been discovered? How long did it take for knowledge of its demotion to reach the public? How much of the reasoning behind that demotion (which turned out to be in error, as Ceres is in hydrostatic equilibrium) was available for anyone seeking to understand the decision?

For most of history, detailed astronomical knowledge was reserved to a small, “ivory tower” elite of scholars, who guarded it carefully. The average person simply didn’t have the data to argue with the PhDs. Today, that is no longer the case, and this may explain some of the resentment by supporters of demotion at the public outcry that ensued after the 2006 IAU vote.

Through books and the Internet, the same astronomical data accessible to academics is accessible to all. Even professional journals are online for the public to read, either for a fee or through connection with a university database—or even via an interested friend. This means anyone with an interest in debates such the one on Pluto’s status can now enter these debates armed with the same facts, theories, and detailed explanations as the so-called “experts.”

And more than a few of these “experts” are less than happy with this development. This is reflected in online comments where even people who present strong scientific arguments are told to leave decisions like this to the “experts.” But democratization of science and of scientific debates is here to stay, and it should not be viewed as a bad thing. The goal is to for everyone to become well-informed, and people who are well-informed will not just sit back and allow a small group who invoke “authority” to make decisions if those decisions make little sense and are of questionable utility.

The Inwood Astronomy Project is hosting the Pluto discussion again on Saturday, July 24 at 10 AM at New York City Parks’ Inwood Nature Center. While the focus will be on educating children, all are welcome to attend and participate. More information can be found here:

If you actually want to observe Pluto for yourself, this month is one of the best times to do so, as Pluto is currently transiting Barnard 92, a dark nebula in the constellation Sagittarius. Charts and advice for observing Pluto can be found here: and here: .

In that vein, I want to publicly thank my friends from Amateur Astronomers, Inc. (AAI) and the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey (UACNJ), who made a special effort to find Pluto as an early birthday present for me using AAI’s 14-inch telescope at UACNJ’s observatory at Jenny Jump State Park, NJ, on the night of July 3. It was a beautiful night, with the best possible observing conditions, and the night sky gave us all many treats, including, for me, my first ever personal view of the Milky Way. Unfortunately, we were not able to match the view showed by the computer software with the star field in the telescope, meaning we saw a field of stars, one of which was not a star at all, but Pluto itself. It was a magical night, but I still want to see my favorite planet and know which object in the eyepiece it is. We’ll just have to try again, hopefully sooner rather than later.

One of the latest developments in the planet definition debate is a request by Australian astronomers Charles Lineweaver and Marc Norman to expand the roster of dwarf planets to include up to 50 additional objects by reducing the minimum radius required for objects to be considered dwarf planets. Lineweaver and Norman do not address the issue of whether dwarf planets should be considered a subclass of planets.

Yet, in a bizarre and biased interpretation of this request, the media has repeatedly described this possible change as “an additional demotion for Pluto.” Those who understand Dr. Alan Stern’s initial intent in coining the term “dwarf planet”—specifically, to create a term referring to objects large enough to be rounded by their own gravity but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits—know this interpretation is outrageous. The dwarf planet category was created with the assumption that it would encompass a large number of objects. Just as dwarf galaxies are the most common types of galaxies, and dwarf stars are the most common types of stars, dwarf planets are very likely the most common types of planets. Adding large numbers to the category does not amount to any type of demotion for Pluto—unless one goes back to the original, unscientific reason for demoting Pluto, specifically, objection to the solar system having “too many planets.”

Those who reject this notion have no reason to interpret additional dwarf planets as somehow equating to any sort of demotion for Pluto or any of the others. Anyone interested can read more about the proposal by Lineweaver and Norman at and
Finally, I have always encouraged supporters of Pluto’s planet status to vote with our dollars. Here are links to the latest pro-Pluto products:

Solar System Jewelry by Laura Cesari accurately depicting distances between planets (some pieces include not just Pluto but asteroids as well!):

Michael Byers’ book Percival’s Planet:

Celestron Pluto Image (by company that makes telescopes and other astronomical equipment):

Other interesting links:

Gene Evans’ New Horizons article in Muscatine Journal:

“Pluto Is A Planet” Chords by Mr. Seley:

“Pluto, Pluto, Pluto: A Sample Travel Commercial for a Grade 6 Unit on Space”:

“New Pluto Pictures Unveiled; Hubble's Sharpest Yet”:

“Pluto: Never Forget” Song and Music Video:

And finally, an article describing discovery of an exoplanet that challenges our understanding and definition of the term “planet”: Interestingly, a planet formed orbiting a brown dwarf is suspected to have formed not the way we know planets to form, but the way stars do—directly from a circumstellar disk.

I am also especially excited to announce that I am working on my book about Pluto, tentatively titled The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story, with the goal of completing it by the end of this year. Anyone on Facebook can find its page at!/pages/The-Little-Planet-that-Would-Not-Die-Plutos-Story/130622596958309?v=wall&ref=ts

Stay tuned…