Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Planet No More

It's official: the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has demoted Pluto from planetary status. Readers may recall that I noted two months ago that this would be a huge story, way back when the Chicago Tribune thought new names for Pluto's moons were more worthy of a headline. In fact, today's news was important enough to warrant an e-mail news alert from the Tribune (CNN, too, but they send out alerts for everything).

The click poll attached to the Tribune's story is ridiculous. It asks whether readers agree with the decision, as if the average yahoo viewing the Tribune's Web site knows a damned thing about astronomy. This isn't a JonBenet Ramsey story; it's science. So far the vote is nearly two-to-one against the IAU. I'd like to ask those "no" voters if they can even name the eight planets in our solar system -- in order, starting with the closest to the sun. Maybe they are just lazy textbook editors who don't want to update their publications.

Here's the funniest paragraph in the Tribune's article:
It was unclear how Pluto's demotion might affect the mission of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which earlier this year began a 9 1/2-year journey to the oddball object to unearth more of its secrets.
Huh? Maybe NASA will say, "Oh hell, Pluto's not even a real planet anymore. Let's just turn this thing off and forget about it!" Seriously, I cannot imagine how the IAU's decision could have any impact whatsoever on a space probe. Just because Pluto isn't classified as a planet doesn't mean it isn't worth investigating.

I favored demotion two months ago and still do. As technology improves, we will probably discover many more Trans-Neptunian objects, each one supporting the IAU's decision. After all, we can't call every little rock in orbit a planet or the designation becomes trivial. Pluto is as consequential as the asteroid belt (a few asteroids were also once classified as planets), and the IAU is recognizing that, designating it and some asteroids as dwarf planets.

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