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1887Solar system loses a planet

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  • Greg Cannon
    Aug 24, 2006

      Dinky Pluto loses its status as planet

      By WILLIAM J. KOLE, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 20
      minutes ago

      PRAGUE, Czech Republic - Pluto, beloved by some as a
      cosmic underdog but scorned by astronomers who
      considered it too dinky and distant, was
      unceremoniously stripped of its status as a planet

      The International Astronomical Union, dramatically
      reversing course just a week after floating the idea
      of reaffirming Pluto's planethood and adding three new
      planets to Earth's neighborhood, downgraded the ninth
      rock from the sun in historic new galactic guidelines.

      The shift will have the world's teachers scrambling to
      alter lesson plans just as schools open for the fall

      "It will all take some explanation, but it is really
      just a reclassification and I can't see that it will
      cause any problems," said Neil Crumpton, who teaches
      science at a high school north of London. "Science is
      an evolving subject and always will be."

      Powerful new telescopes, experts said, are changing
      the way they size up the mysteries of the solar system
      and beyond. But the scientists at the conference
      showed a soft side, waving plush toys of the Walt
      Disney character Pluto the dog — and insisting that
      Pluto's spirit will live on in the exciting
      discoveries yet to come.

      "The word 'planet' and the idea of planets can be
      emotional because they're something we learn as
      children," said Richard Binzel, a professor of
      planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of
      Technology, who helped hammer out the new definition.

      "This is really all about science, which is all about
      getting new facts," he said. "Science has marched on.
      ... Many more Plutos wait to be discovered."

      Pluto, a planet since 1930, got the boot because it
      didn't meet the new rules, which say a planet not only
      must orbit the sun and be large enough to assume a
      nearly round shape, but must "clear the neighborhood
      around its orbit." That disqualifies Pluto, whose
      oblong orbit overlaps Neptune's, downsizing the solar
      system to eight planets from the traditional nine.

      Astronomers have labored without a universal
      definition of a planet since well before the time of
      Copernicus, who proved that the Earth revolves around
      the sun, and the experts gathered in Prague burst into
      applause when the guidelines were passed.

      Predictably, Pluto's demotion provoked plenty of
      wistful nostalgia.

      "It's disappointing in a way, and confusing," said
      Patricia Tombaugh, the 93-year-old widow of Pluto
      discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.

      "I don't know just how you handle it. It kind of
      sounds like I just lost my job," she said from Las
      Cruces, N.M. "But I understand science is not
      something that just sits there. It goes on. Clyde
      finally said before he died, 'It's there. Whatever it
      is. It is there.'"

      The decision by the IAU, the official arbiter of
      heavenly objects, restricts membership in the elite
      cosmic club to the eight classical planets: Mercury,
      Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and

      Pluto and objects like it will be known as "dwarf
      planets," which raised some thorny questions about
      semantics: If a raincoat is still a coat, and a cell
      phone is still a phone, why isn't a dwarf planet still
      a planet?

      NASA said Pluto's downgrade would not affect its $700
      million New Horizons spacecraft mission, which this
      year began a 9 1/2-year journey to the oddball object
      to unearth more of its secrets.

      But mission head Alan Stern said he was "embarrassed"
      by Pluto's undoing and predicted that Thursday's vote
      would not end the debate. Although 2,500 astronomers
      from 75 nations attended the conference, only about
      300 showed up to vote.

      "It's a sloppy definition. It's bad science," he said.
      "It ain't over."

      Under the new rules, two of the three objects that
      came tantalizingly close to planethood will join Pluto
      as dwarfs: the asteroid Ceres, which was a planet in
      the 1800s before it got demoted, and 2003 UB313, an
      icy object slightly larger than Pluto whose
      discoverer, Michael Brown of the California Institute
      of Technology, has nicknamed "Xena." The third object,
      Pluto's largest moon, Charon, isn't in line for any
      special designation.

      Brown, whose Xena find rekindled calls for Pluto's
      demise because it showed it isn't nearly as unique as
      it once seemed, waxed philosophical.

      "Eight is enough," he said, jokingly adding: "I may go
      down in history as the guy who killed Pluto."

      Demoting the icy orb named for the Roman god of the
      underworld isn't personal — it's just business — said
      Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Space Transit
      Planetarium and host of the PBS show "Star Gazer."

      "It's like an amicable divorce," he said. "The legal
      status has changed but the person really hasn't. It's
      just single again."


      AP Science Writers Alicia Chang in Los Angeles and
      Seth Borenstein in Washington, and correspondents Sue
      Leeman in London and Mike Schneider in Cape Canaveral,
      Fla., contributed to this story.


      On the Net:

      International Astronomical Union, http://www.iau.org
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