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Monday, August 24, 2015

Nine Years Later, the Ninth Planet Lives!

Nine has been a recurring number throughout this Year of Pluto. Ironically, this day marks yet another significant ninth—the ninth anniversary of the controversial IAU planet definition and wrongful exclusion of Pluto from the roster of planets.

That decision can be compared to studies of climate change commissioned by oil companies. The scientists doing the study know the hand that feeds them, which is why they decide on the conclusion they want first, then make the study fit the result they favor.

A majority of the 424 IAU members who voted that day first decided they wanted Pluto out, then concocted a definition that gave them their desired results.

A year ago on this day, I ended my blog entry with the following sentence: “Next August 24, we will have the most clear idea yet of just how alive a planet one astronomer prematurely wrote off as dead is.”

And we do.

Only five percent of the data taken by New Horizons’ seven instruments at the Pluto system in one day has been returned, but it is enough to confirm that planet Pluto is very much alive. Geologically, its lack of craters points to a world that is constantly being resurfaced, a world with some type of internal heat source, possible cryovolcanism, and maybe even a subsurface ocean.

Pluto’s active geology has stumped scientists who previously thought such activity is generated by tidal forces from a nearby giant planet. That is the case for large moons of the solar system’s gas giants. But Pluto and Charon have no nearby gas giant, so tidal forces cannot account for its geological activity.

Most scientists expected to find a dead rock so far away from the Sun and from any gas or ice giants. But Pluto is more geologically active than Mars, and even Charon shows evidence of geological activity.

On a human level, Pluto, with its prominent bright heart, has captured the hearts of people worldwide in a way they will not likely soon forget. It is one thing for us to love Pluto. It is a completely different thing when Pluto, in its most prominent image, appears to be sending a love note to us.

And yet, another IAU General Assembly has come and gone with hardly an acknowledgement of the amazing feat of humanity sending a probe to Pluto and the amazing world that probe revealed.

The only mention of New Horizons at the General Assembly was an article chastising the mission team for naming features on Pluto and Charon with names that may not be approved by the IAU, leaving fans bitterly disappointed!

A decade ago, the discovery of Eris presented new information that warranted opening the discussion of what is a planet, but the findings at Pluto are far more encompassing in telling us about these small outer worlds—and yet, no one at the General Assembly found a need to re-open this discussion.

Beyond the IAU leadership, this summer has seen a plethora of articles published on various websites repeating the same old IAU definition along with the caveat that Pluto is not a planet because “there is a third requirement of clearing its orbit that Pluto does not meet.”

A certain astronomer who believes he “killed” Pluto, and his followers, are giving interviews and talks emphasizing that although this little world is fascinating, it is still “dead” as a planet.

Nowhere less than at the flyby celebration itself, a few media people likely acting for this particular astronomer spent hours on Twitter tweeting about how Pluto is dead, even accusing those of us who advocate its planet status of trying to “ruin the flyby.”

The only way someone could have “ruined the flyby” would have been for them to fling debris directly at the rapidly flying spacecraft!

A writer for the Planetary Society posted an image with the Society’s logo of the “Non-planets visited by a spacecraft” that prominently featured Pluto—directly from the mission headquarters on the very day of the flyby.

What is going on here? To me, it seems obvious. Supporters of Pluto’s demotion keep repeating their positions online because they know the flyby data will reveal just how much of a planet Pluto is.

The “I killed Pluto” astronomer claims that advocates of a geophysical planet definition have simply “gotten louder, that no one has changed their minds on the issue.” Yet the reality is just the opposite—opponents of Pluto’s planet status are the ones who have gotten louder because the data is not working in their favor.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden openly said he considers Pluto a planet.

Dr. Daniel Brown, a British astronomer at Nottingham Trent University, said of Pluto, on the day of the flyby, “Maybe we need to reconsider its status again.”

A third requirement of orbit clearing? That constitutes circular reasoning, much like arguments that claim the Earth is 6,000 years old because the Bible says so. Just because an individual or group or book says something does not make that thing true. This type of argument is called “appeal to authority” and is known as a logical fallacy.

Some people approached the flyby by setting a false dichotomy, arguing that focus on Pluto’s status somehow detracts from focus on the science New Horizons is doing.

To me, that is a false claim. It is the science that tells us what an object is, what processes it has undergone, and what it is experiencing now. The science is what informs the status.

As Alan Stern says, “It is very difficult to look at an object with this complexity and NOT call it a planet.”

How much sense does the IAU definition make when its defenders, such as Victor Baker of the University of Arizona, make statements such as, "The classification of Pluto as a dwarf planet is really not based on criteria affected by the new images. The issue is that there are other planetary objects in the far outer system that are very similar to Pluto in size and general character."

In other words, the actual processes on Pluto’s surface and the features that reflect those processes have nothing to do with its classification. The only thing that matters is an inexplicable need to keep the number of solar system planets small. How far removed is this from, “I’ve made up my mind; don’t confuse me with the facts?”

Between now and the end of 2016, New Horizons will be the gift that keeps on giving—more data, more pictures, more understanding of this fascinating binary planet system. Those who refuse to adjust their perceptions based on new data are nothing less than untrue to the scientific method.

Nine years after a really bad decision was made, it is abundantly clear that that decision was premature and just plain wrong.

Some say, who cares; Pluto is what it is regardless of what we call it. But clearly, many people DO care. Definitions matter because they are the way we make sense of the world around us.

There is no better time than now, as we await arrival of the other 95 percent of data on the Pluto system, to affirm its planet status. As planetary scientist Phil Metzger notes, “…classifying things in nature is an important part of the progress of science, and therefore I believe it cannot ever be settled by a vote. Trying to enforce an opinion through voting is unacceptable to the scientific community.

However, the IAU needed to decide on the bookkeeping method it would use for keeping track of planets, and it had to decide something, so its members took a vote. That should have never been represented as settling Pluto's planet status. But mistakes happen all the time in science. We keep learning and we correct our mistakes. In this case, the bad definition of a planet will be corrected, I have no doubt.

…We are free to call it a planet right now. The planetary science community has never stopped calling bodies like Pluto ‘planets.’

So start calling Pluto a planet right now. Add to the consensus, because that's how science makes progress, by one person at a time being convinced of the truth and adopting it. Science is not decided by votes and you are not required to submit to nonsense.”

Make your voice heard! Sign the petition at . It doesn’t matter that the Honolulu General Assembly is over. There will be other General Assemblies, and there are other organizations that can address this besides the IAU.

Notably, this petition has 5,534 signatures—in contrast to 333 who voted that dwarf planets are not planets (to their credit, 91 voted that dwarf planets should be a subclass of planets).

And make sure to voice your opinion in the Pluto Safari poll at . So far, out of 10,013 votes, 73 percent favor Pluto being classed as a planet. Organizers of the poll note some even changed their minds from “no” to “yes” during and after the flyby.

It’s not over for Pluto. It’s just beginning.
New Horizons Pluto Flyby from Bjorn Jonsson

Sunday, August 9, 2015

An Open Letter to the 29th IAU General Assembly

August 9, 2015

Dear Dr. Montmerle, Members of the IAU Executive Committee, Members of the Secretariat, Members of the Commission on Public Outreach Information Management, Commission on New Media, Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature, Working Group on Small Bodies Nomenclature, Working Group on the Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites, Working Group on International General Assemblies, and Delegates to the 29th IAU General Assembly,

I am an amateur astronomer and freelance writer who is writing to respectfully request the General Assembly officially reopen discussion on the issue of planet definition for both our solar system and the countless others both discovered and waiting to be discovered.

Please note that I do not represent any government, space agency, space mission, company, or print or online publication in writing this. These views are solely my own and those shared by like-minded people who have signed petitions stating, “I agree that Pluto is a planet, and a better definition is needed.”

The last three years in general and the year 2015 in particular have been a time of momentous, historic discoveries in planetary science. The Dawn mission’s orbit of Ceres and the New Horizons flyby of Pluto have stunned the world, not just with beautiful pictures, but with compelling evidence that these are complex geological worlds undergoing active internal processes as we speak.

While much data awaits from both missions, the information we have to date shows that Ceres and Pluto are far more than spherical worlds. Ceres may have a thin atmosphere and possibly a subsurface ocean. It could be one of the solar system’s most active and prominent water worlds.

Pluto’s lack of craters, its unusual variety of terrains, stunning mountains, and flowing ices indicate it too is geologically active today and like Ceres, may harbor a subsurface ocean. Like its larger planet counterparts, it seems to have an internal heat source. Analysis of the orbital dynamics of the six-body system (Pluto, Charon, and four small moons) reveals that its four small moons do not solely orbit Pluto but orbit a barycenter between Pluto and Charon, making the Pluto system a true binary, with Pluto and Charon acting much the way stars in a double star system do.

Incredibly, New Horizons has shown us that Pluto in many ways is more like Earth than possibly any other solar system world. As NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld noted, “With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling.”

The question of what constitutes a planet is about far more than Pluto. As astronomer Dr. David Grinspoon pointed out, the current IAU definition completely excludes exoplanets, of which we have now discovered close to 2,000.

It makes no sense to have one definition for planets in our solar system and another or none for the billions that orbit other stars or float freely in space. Doing this privileges Earth and its parent star in a manner that runs counter to the Copernican principle.

In 2006, the leadership of the IAU attributed the need to come up with a definition of the word “planet” to the discovery of Eris and other large Kuiper Belt Objects. New information frequently compels revisiting and revising our classification systems. The discoveries of 2015 and of the last three years once again compel a paradigm shift and revision in our understanding of planets and planetary systems.

In our own solar system, scientists have been stunned to find that what we thought were dead worlds are much more akin to their larger counterparts, in spite of their size.

In other solar systems, we have found a diversity of worlds in a huge variety of sizes and orbits, many in locations and situations previously believed impossible. These discoveries have often resulted in scientists noting a need to “go back to the drawing board” to develop a new understanding of planet and solar system formation.

At the 2012 GA, the IAU approved electronic voting for members not able to be physically present at the conference, a step forward I respect and applaud.

Now, it is time to take the next step, to act with the flexibility and open-mindedness that represents science at its best. No definition should ever be final because we constantly learn more, requiring us to revisit concepts we thought we thoroughly understood.

For these reasons, I ask specifically that you reconsider and place for a new vote Resolution 5b from 2006, which would establish “planets” as a broad, umbrella category under which both classical and dwarf planets would be included and that the definition of planet be expanded to include objects that orbit a star or are free-floating in space, to accommodate exoplanets and rogue planets.

Additionally, I ask that you remove all dwarf planets from the “Minor Planet” category, remove minor planet numbers given to them, and remove them from the auspices of the Minor Planet Center. The term “minor planet,” as noted by Dr. David Weintraub, refers to objects now classed by the IAU as “Small Solar System Bodies,” in other words, asteroids, comets, and centaurs, objects too small to be in hydrostatic equilibrium. The newly-revealed complexity of dwarf planets confirms they do not belong in this category.

I also ask that you consider classifying complex spherical moons of planets, which undergo the same processes as the terrestrial planets, as part of a new category of “satellite planets.”

Continuing to ignore these new developments will not make them go away and constitutes a disservice to science. I am sure you are all aware that at a debate last fall at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, participants, including scientists, educators, and students, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Pluto being classified as a planet.

Other polls, including those of professional astronomers, have shown similar results; people with strong backgrounds in astronomy and planetary science have overwhelmingly shown their support for dwarf planets being classed as planets and for a definition that includes exoplanets.

If you do not feel ready to put a resolution on the floor of this year’s GA, at least set in motion a process of establishing a committee to revisit the issue for the GA in 2018. I urge you to reach out to members of the New Horizons team, the only people in the world who actually sent a probe to Pluto, as well as to a broad cross-section of planetary scientists, both amateur and professional, and even to the public for input.

Now is an ideal time for such an effort, as the Dawn and New Horizons missions have generated a revived interest in astronomy and space exploration worldwide.

Failure to adequately address this issue based on new data will eventually result in another organization or simply public usage taking it up and adopting a better planet definition. If the IAU seeks to remain in a leadership role in terms of safeguarding the science of astronomy, it is time to revisit this issue and allow the time and deliberation necessary for the development of a genuine consensus, reaching out to as broad a spectrum of people as possible through digital media.

Laurel E. Kornfeld, Highland Park, NJ, USA