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May 17, 2009

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Laurel Kornfeld

No, the astronomers who demoted Pluto were not acting reasonably, and their motives were most certainly not pure and blameless. You really should present both sides of an ongoing controversy rather than just one as fact. Only four percent of the IAU voted to demote Pluto, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto. For a far better and more open discussion on this issue, Google "The Great Planet Debate," and listen to transcripts of this conference held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD, in August 2008, in response to the IAU debacle.

The IAU definition makes no linguistic sense, as it states that dwarf planets are not planets at all. That’s like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear. And it departs from the use of the term "dwarf" in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies.

Second, it defines objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were placed in Pluto’s orbit, by the IAU definition, it would not be a planet. That is because the further away an object is from its parent star, the more difficulty it will have in clearing its orbit. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless.

These reasons are why many scientists and lay people are working behind the scenes to get the demotion overturned. For more on why Pluto should retain its planet status, read "Is Pluto A Planet" by Dr. David Weintraub. This debate is far from over.

Many planetary scientists prefer a broader planet definition that encompasses any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star. That gives our solar system 13 planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. The last four are both planets and Kuiper Belt Objects.

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