Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Bigger Solar System? Astronomers Debate Definition Of 'Planet' And 'Plutons'

Date:
August 16, 2006
Source:
International Astronomical Union
Summary:
The world's astronomers, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), have concluded two years of work defining the difference between "planets" and the smaller "solar system bodies" such as comets and asteroids. If the definition is approved by the astronomers gathered 14-25 August 2006 at the IAU General Assembly in Prague, our Solar System will include 12 planets, with more to come.

Three new planets? If astronomers agree, three of the bodies in the Solar System will be assigned new status as planets: Ceres, Charon (Pluto's companion) and 2003 UB313. There would be no change in the planetary status of Pluto. In this artist's impression the planets are drawn to scale, but without correct relative distances.
Credit: The International Astronomical Union/Martin Kornmesser

The world's astronomers, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), have concluded two years of work defining the difference between "planets" and the smaller "solar system bodies" such as comets and asteroids. If the definition is approved by the astronomers gathered 14-25 August 2006 at the IAU General Assembly in Prague, our Solar System will include 12 planets, with more to come: eight classical planets that dominate the system, three planets in a new and growing category of "plutons" -- Pluto-like objects -- and Ceres. Pluto remains a planet and is the prototype for the new category of "plutons."

With the advent of powerful new telescopes on the ground and in space, planetary astronomy has gone though an exciting development over the past decade. For thousands of years very little was known about the planets other than they were objects that moved in the sky with respect to the background of fixed stars. In fact the word "planet" comes from the Greek word for "wanderer". But today hosts of newly discovered large objects in the outer regions of our Solar System present a challenge to our historically based definition of a "planet".

At first glance one should think that it is easy to define what a planet is -- a large and round body. On second thought difficulties arise, as one could ask "where is the lower limit?" -- how large, and how round should an asteroid be before it becomes a planet -- as well as "where is the upper limit?" -- how large can a planet be before it becomes a brown dwarf or a star?

IAU President Ron Ekers explains the rational behind a planet definition: "Modern science provides much more knowledge than the simple fact that objects orbiting the Sun appear to move with respect to the background of fixed stars. For example, recent new discoveries have been made of objects in the outer regions of our Solar System that have sizes comparable to and larger than Pluto. These discoveries have rightfully called into question whether or not they should be considered as new 'planets.' "

The International Astronomical Union has been the arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since its inception in 1919. The world's astronomers, under the auspices of the IAU, have had official deliberations on a new definition for the word "planet" for nearly two years. IAU's top, the so-called Executive Committee, led by Ekers, formed a Planet Definition Committee (PDC) comprised by seven persons who were astronomers, writers, and historians with broad international representation. This group of seven convened in Paris in late June and early July 2006. They culminated the two year process by reaching a unanimous consensus for a proposed new definition of the word "planet."

Owen Gingerich, the Chair of the Planet Definition Committee says: "In July we had vigorous discussions of both the scientific and the cultural/historical issues, and on the second morning several members admitted that they had not slept well, worrying that we would not be able to reach a consensus. But by the end of a long day, the miracle had happened: we had reached a unanimous agreement."

The part of "IAU Resolution 5 for GA-XXVI" that describes the planet definition, states "A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet." Member of the Planet Definition Committee, Richard Binzel says: "Our goal was to find a scientific basis for a new definition of planet and we chose gravity as the determining factor. Nature decides whether or not an object is a planet."

According to the new draft definition, two conditions must be satisfied for an object to be called a "planet." First, the object must be in orbit around a star, while not being itself a star. Second, the object must be large enough (or more technically correct, massive enough) for its own gravity to pull it into a nearly spherical shape. The shape of objects with mass above 5 x 1020 kg and diameter greater than 800 km would normally be determined by self-gravity, but all borderline cases would have to be established by observation.

If the proposed Resolution is passed, the 12 planets in our Solar System will be Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon and 2003 UB313. The name 2003 UB313 is provisional, as a "real" name has not yet been assigned to this object. A decision and announcement of a new name are likely not to be made during the IAU General Assembly in Prague, but at a later time. The naming procedures depend on the outcome of the Resolution vote. There will most likely be more planets announced by the IAU in the future. Currently a dozen "candidate planets" are listed on IAU's "watchlist" which keeps changing as new objects are found and the physics of the existing candidates becomes better known.

The IAU draft Resolution also defines a new category of planet for official use: "pluton". Plutons are distinguished from classical planets in that they reside in orbits around the Sun that take longer than 200 years to complete (i.e. they orbit beyond Neptune). Plutons typically have orbits that are highly tilted with respect to the classical planets (technically referred to as a large orbital inclination). Plutons also typically have orbits that are far from being perfectly circular (technically referred to as having a large orbital eccentricity). All of these distinguishing characteristics for plutons are scientifically interesting in that they suggest a different origin from the classical planets.

The draft "Planet Definition" Resolution will be discussed and refined during the General Assembly and then it (plus four other Resolutions) will be presented for voting at the 2nd session of the GA 24 August between 14:00 and 17:30 CEST.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by International Astronomical Union. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

International Astronomical Union. "Bigger Solar System? Astronomers Debate Definition Of 'Planet' And 'Plutons'." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 August 2006. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/08/060816082231.htm>.
International Astronomical Union. (2006, August 16). Bigger Solar System? Astronomers Debate Definition Of 'Planet' And 'Plutons'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/08/060816082231.htm
International Astronomical Union. "Bigger Solar System? Astronomers Debate Definition Of 'Planet' And 'Plutons'." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/08/060816082231.htm (accessed October 20, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Monday, October 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Latin America Launches Communications Satellite

Latin America Launches Communications Satellite

AFP (Oct. 17, 2014) Argentina launches a home-built satellite, a first for Latin America. It will ride a French-made Ariane 5 rocket into orbit, and will provide cell phone, digital TV, Internet and data services to the lower half of South America. Duration: 00:41 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
This Week @ NASA, October 17, 2014

This Week @ NASA, October 17, 2014

NASA (Oct. 17, 2014) Power spacewalk, MAVEN’s “First Light”, Hubble finds extremely distant galaxy and more... Video provided by NASA
Powered by NewsLook.com
Saturn's 'Death Star' Moon Might Have A Hidden Ocean

Saturn's 'Death Star' Moon Might Have A Hidden Ocean

Newsy (Oct. 17, 2014) The smallest of Saturn's main moons, Mimas, wobbles as it orbits. Research reveals it might be due to a global ocean underneath its icy surface. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Comet Set for Rare Close Shave With Mars

Comet Set for Rare Close Shave With Mars

AFP (Oct. 16, 2014) A fast-moving comet is about to shave by Mars for a once-in-a-million-years encounter that a flurry of spacecraft around the Red Planet hope to capture and photograph, NASA said. Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins