(Submitted January 20, 1999)
I'm a High school Senior and have a fair amount of knowledge of the outer
planets. At one point in my career planning, I wanted to be an field expert
for You (NASA). As of this morning I heard on GOOD MORNING AMERICA that
Pluto is no longer considered a planet, just a big ball of ice. Is this
true, and if so what is Pluto's current status in regards to its
There have been a lot of reports, such as
about this subject, with varying degrees of accuracy.
The group who will decide the official status of Pluto for the professional
astronomers world-wide (as they do all official questions related to objects
in the Universe) is called the International Astronomical Union; in this
particular case, IAU Division III (Planetary Systems Sciences) is taking
Pluto has been known as the ninth planet of our solar system since it was
discovered by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in 1930. On the
other hand, it has been clear for decades that Pluto does not fit in with the
pattern of the other planets. Over the last few years, the accumulated
information on Pluto and the discovery of an increasing number of other
objects in the outer solar system with orbital characteristics very similar
to those of Pluto have been discussed within the community of astronomers
called "minor-planet researchers". The question of the official status of
Pluto has recently come to the forefront because the orbits of some of these
other objects are now sufficiently well determined that it is reasonable to
begin including them in the catalog of orbits of what are now generically
known as "Trans-Neptunian Objects" (TNOs).
IAU Division III has already recommended that Pluto be included as number
1 in a catalog of TNOs.
Does this mean that Pluto has been demoted? The answer is no.
Pluto will have dual classification as a planet and a TNO, at least for
the time being.
Currently, the definition of a planet (as opposed to an asteriod or a
TNO) is rather arbitrary. If astronomers reach a consensus on what the
defintion of a planet should be, then IAU may reclassify some Solar System
objects. However, in the absense of such a consensus, the definition is
historical and arbitrary; moreover, many people outside the professional
astronomy community have an interest in this issue, as the media attention
attests. "Until there is a consensus that one of the physical definitions
is clearly the most useful approach in thinking about the solar system,
the IAU will not 'demote' Pluto or 'promote' Ceres," says the
Brian Marsden, head of the IAU's Minor Planet Center, has also addes his
voice, as quoted in
a press release.
"There is no plan to 'downgrade' or 'demote' Pluto. It will stay as a planet."
Allie Hajian, John Cannizzo, Laura Whitlock
and the Ask an Astrophysicist team
Note added in January 2007: the above answer correctly describes
the situation in 1999. However, the discovery in 2003 of the object Eris,
which is almost certainly bigger than Pluto, prompted a new round
of discussion among astronomers. In August 2006, the International
Astronomical Union decided to re-classify Pluto as a "dwarf
planet," a category separate from the 8 planets (Mercury,
Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). Not
everybody is happy with this decision, however, so this may
not be the end of the story.
You can also read about Eris, Pluto, and the definition of
planets on the web pages of Eris's discoverer, Dr. Michael Brown:
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