The definition of planet is still a sore point—especially among Pluto fans

2021-08-24

For 76 years, Pluto was the beloved ninth planet. No one cared that it was the runt of the solar system, with a moon, Charon, half its size. No one minded that it had a tilted, eccentric orbit. Pluto was a weirdo, but it was our weirdo.

“Children identify with its smallness,” wrote science writer Dava Sobel in her 2005 book The Planets. “Adults relate to its inadequacy, its marginal existence as a misfit.”

When Pluto was excluded from the planetary display in 2000 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, children sent hate mail to Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s planetarium. Likewise, there was a popular uproar when 15 years ago, in August 2006, the International Astronomical Union, or IAU, wrote a new definition of “planet” that left Pluto out. The new definition required that a body 1) orbit the sun, 2) have enough mass to be spherical (or close) and 3) have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit of other bodies. Objects that meet the first two criteria but not the third, like Pluto, were designated “dwarf planets.”

Science is not sentimental. It doesn’t care what you’re fond of, or what mnemonic you learned in elementary school. Science appeared to have won the day. Scientists learned more about the solar system and revised their views accordingly.

“I believe that the decision taken was the correct one,” says astronomer Catherine Cesarsky of CEA Saclay in France, who was president of the IAU in 2006. “Pluto is very different from the eight solar system planets, and it would have been very difficult to keep changing the number of solar system planets as more massive [objects beyond Neptune] were being discovered. The intention was not at all to demote Pluto, but on the contrary to promote it as [a] prototype of a new class of solar system objects, of great importance and interest.”

For a long time, I shared this view. I’ve been writing about Pluto since my very first newspaper gig at the Cornell Daily Sun, when I was a junior in college in 2006. I interviewed some of my professors about the IAU’s decision. One, planetary scientist Jean-Luc Margot, who is now at UCLA, called it “a triumph of science over emotion. Science is all about recognizing that earlier ideas may have been wrong,” he said at the time. “Pluto is finally where it belongs.”

But another, planetary scientist Jim Bell, now at Arizona State University in Tempe, thought the decision was a travesty. He still does. The idea that planets have to clear their orbits is particularly irksome, he says. The ability to collect or cast out all that debris doesn’t just depend on the body itself.

Everything with interesting geology should be a planet, Bell told me recently. “I’m a lumper, not a splitter,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it matters what you are.”

Not everyone agrees with him. “Fifteen years ago we finally got it right,” says planetary scientist Mike Brown of Caltech, who uses the Twitter handle @plutokiller because his research helped knock Pluto out of the planetary pantheon. “Pluto had been wrong all along.”

But since 2006, we’ve learned that Pluto has an atmosphere and maybe even clouds. It has mountains made of water ice, fields of frozen nitrogen, methane snow–capped peaks, and dunes and volcanoes. “It’s a dynamic, complex world unlike any other orbiting the sun,” journalist Christopher Crockett wrote in Science News in 2015 when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto.

The New Horizons mission showed that Pluto has fascinating and active geology to rival that of any rocky world in the inner solar system. And that solidified planetary scientist Philip Metzger’s view that the IAU definition missed the mark.

“There was an immediate reaction against the dumb definition” when it was proposed, says Metzger, of the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Since then, he and colleagues have been refining their views: “Why do we have this intuition that says that it’s dumb?”

Retelling the tale

It turns out that the “we just learned more” narrative isn’t really true, Metzger says. Though the official story is that Pluto was reclassified because new data came in, it’s not that simple. Teaching that narrative is bad for science, and for science education, he says.

The truth is, there’s no single definition of a planet — and I’m beginning to believe that’s a good thing.

For centuries, the word “planet” was a much more inclusive term. When Galileo turned his telescope at Jupiter, any largish moving body in the sky was considered a planet — including moons. When astronomers discovered the rocky bodies we now call asteroids in the 1800s, those too were called planets, at least at first.

Pluto was considered a planet from the very beginning. When Clyde Tombaugh, an amateur astronomer from Kansas newly recruited to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., spotted it in photos taken in January 1930, he rushed to the observatory director and declared: “I have found your Planet X.”

The discovery was no accident. In 1903, U.S. astronomer Percival Lowell hypothesized that a hidden planet seven times the mass of Earth orbited 45 times farther from the sun. Lowell had searched for what he called Planet X until he died in 1916. The search continued without him.

The new planet was thought to be “black as coal, nearly as dense as iron, twice as dense as the heaviest earthly surface rocks,” Science News Letter, the predecessor of Science News, reported in 1930.

Further research showed Lowell had grossly overestimated Pluto’s mass: It’s more like one five-hundredth the mass of Earth. Things got even weirder when scientists realized Pluto wasn’t alone out there. In 1992, an object about a tenth the diameter of Pluto was found orbiting the sun “in the deep freeze of space well beyond the orbits of Pluto and Neptune,” as Science News described it.

Since then, more than 2,000 icy bodies have been found hiding in that frigid zone dubbed the Kuiper Belt, and there are many more out there. Awareness of Pluto’s neighbors brought new questions: What characteristics could unite these strange new worlds with the more familiar ones? And what sets them apart? With so many new objects coming into focus, there was a growing desire for a formal definition of “planet.”

In 2005, Brown spotted the first of the Kuiper Belt bodies that seemed to be larger than Pluto. If Pluto was the ninth planet, then surely the new discovery, nicknamed Xena (in honor of the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess), should be the 10th. But if Xena was an icy leftover from the formation of the solar system undeserving of the “planet” title, so too was Pluto.

Tensions over how to categorize Pluto and Xena came to a head in 2006 at a meeting in Prague of the IAU. On the final day, August 24, after much acrimonious debate, a new definition of “planet” was put to a vote. Pluto and Xena got the boot. Xena was aptly renamed Eris, the Greek goddess of discord.

Textbooks were revised, posters were reprinted, but many planetary scientists, especially those who study Pluto, never bothered to change. “Planetary scientists don’t use the IAU’s definition in publishing papers,” Metzger says. “We pretty much just ignore it.”

In part that might be cheek, or spite. But Metzger and colleagues think there’s good reason to reject the definition. Metzger, Bell and others — including Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, the planetary scientist who led the New Horizons mission and has argued since before the discovery of the Kuiper Belt that the solar system contains hundreds of “planets” — make their case in a pair of recent papers, one published in 2019 in Icarus and one forthcoming.

After examining hundreds of scientific papers, textbooks and letters dating back centuries, the researchers show that the way scientists and the public have used the word “planet” has changed over time, but not in the way most people think.

In and out

Consider Ceres, the first of what are now known as dwarf planets to be discovered. Located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Ceres was considered a planet after its 1801 discovery, too. It’s often said that Ceres was demoted after astronomers found the rest of the bodies in the asteroid belt. By the end of the 1800s, with hundreds of asteroids piling up, Ceres was stripped of its planetary title thanks to its neighbors. In that sense, the story goes, Ceres and Pluto suffered the same fate.

But that’s not the real story, Metzger and colleagues found. Ceres and other asteroids were considered planets, sometimes dubbed “minor planets,” well into the 20th century. A 1951 article in Science News Letter declared that “thousands of planets are known to circle our sun,” although most are “small fry.” These “baby planets” can be as small as a city block or as wide as Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when spacecraft offered better observations of these bodies, that the term “minor planets” fell out of fashion. While the largest asteroids still looked planetlike, most small asteroids turned out to be lumpy and irregular in shape, suggesting a different origin or different geophysics than bigger, rounder planets. The fact that asteroids didn’t “clear their orbits” had nothing to do with the name change, Metzger argues.

And what about moons? Scientists called them “planets” or “secondary planets” until the 1920s. Surprisingly, it was nonscientific publications, notably astrological almanacs that used the positions of celestial bodies for horoscope readings, that insisted on the simplicity of a limited number of planets moving through the fixed sphere of stars.

Metzger thinks that older definition of a planet that included moons was forgotten when planetary science went through a “Great Depression” between about 1910 and 1950. So many asteroids had been discovered that searching for new ones or refining their orbits was getting boring. Telescopes weren’t good enough to start exploring asteroids’ geology yet. Other parts of space science were way more exciting, so attention went there.

But new data that came with space travel brought moons back into the planetary fold. Starting in the 1960s, “planet” reappeared in the scientific literature as a description for satellites, at least the large, round ones.

Real-world usage

The planet definition that includes certain moons, asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects has had staying power because it’s useful, Metzger says. Planetary scientists’ work includes comparing a place like Mars (a planet) to Titan (a moon) to Triton (a moon that was probably born in the Kuiper Belt and captured by Neptune long ago) to Pluto (a dwarf planet). It’s scientifically useful to have a word to describe the cosmic bodies where interesting geophysics, including the conditions that enable life, occur, he says. There’s all sorts of extra complexity, from mountains to atmospheres to oceans and rivers, when rocky worlds grow big enough for their own gravity to make them spherical.

“We’re not claiming that we have the perfect definition of a planet and that all scientists ought to adopt our definition,” he adds. That’s the same mistake the IAU made. “We’re saying this is something that ought to be debated.”

A more inclusive definition of “planet” would also give a more accurate concept of what the solar system is. Emphasizing the eight major planets suggests that they dominate the solar system, when in fact the smaller stuff outnumbers those worlds tremendously. The major planets don’t even stay put in their orbits over long time-scales. The gas giants have shuffled around in the past. Teaching the view of the solar system that includes just eight static planets doesn’t do that dynamism justice.

Caltech’s Brown disagrees. Having the gravitational oomph to nudge other bodies in and out of line is an important feature of a world, he says. Plus, the eight planets clearly dominate our solar system, he says. “If you dropped me in the solar system for the first time, and I looked around and saw what was there, nobody would say anything other than, ‘Wow, there are these eight — choose your word — and a lot of other little things.’”

Thinking of planets that way leads to big-picture questions about how the solar system put itself together.

One common argument in favor of the IAU’s definition is that it keeps the number of planets manageable. Can you imagine if there were hundreds or thousands of planets? How would the average person keep track of them all? What would we print on lunch boxes? I’m not making fun of this idea; as an astronomy writer who has been obsessed with space since I was 8, I would be reluctant to turn people off to the planets.

But Metzger thinks teaching just eight planets risks turning people off to all the rest of space. “Back in the early 2000s, there was a lot of excitement when astronomers were discovering new planets in our solar system,” he says. “All that excitement ended in 2006.” But those objects are still out there and are still worthy of interest. By now, there are at least 150 of these dwarf planets, and most people have no clue, he says.

This is the argument I find most compelling. Why do we need to limit the number of planets? Kids can memorize the names and characteristics of hundreds of dinosaurs, or Pokémon, for that matter. Why not encourage that for planets? Why not inspire students to rediscover and explore the space objects that most appeal to them?

I’ve come to think that what makes a planet may just be in the eye of the beholders. I may be a lumper, not a splitter, too.

sciencenews.org, 24 August 2021
; https://www.sciencenews.org