New Horizons

Here’s Your Chance To Fund A Universe Today Project On The Pluto Planethood Debate

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

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This fall, Universe Today plans to get in-depth into the Pluto planethood debate. I (Elizabeth Howell) just launched a crowdfunding project on a new platform called Beacon that will allow me to fly down to Washington, D.C. for several days to interview Pluto scientists.

Should the project be funded, a few fun things are going to happen. Here, Universe Today readers will get a series of articles into the Pluto planethood debate. We’ll examine the controversial International Astronomical Union vote and why certain scientists still don’t believe Pluto is a dwarf planet today.

The question has special relevance today because NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on a journey to Pluto, and is less than a year from getting there. Examining Pluto will give scientists a window into how the solar system formed, which in turn gives us clues as to how the Earth came to be. We’ll have some stuff about the science as well; stay tuned for the details!

You’ll also get the chance to support astronomy education and outreach. I’m pleased to announce that CosmoQuest will be a partner on the project, receiving 15% of all proceeds for the project. If you contribute $250, $500 or $1,000, they will receive an additional 15% of your money. Contributors at this level will have their name mentioned in at least two of a series of six podcasts I will do for CosmoQuest’s 365 Days of Astronomy. There are other fun perks, too, so check out the Beacon page for more.

CosmoQuest-Logo-Full-sm3

As a freelance journalist, my challenge with doing travel stories is I have to pay my own way. Beacon solves that problem. It will allow me to spend a few days in person with scientists, gathering pictures and videos and podcasts, instead of relying on the phone interviews I usually conduct.

After paying contributions to CosmoQuest and to Beacon, every single cent remaining will be for travel expenses only. The money will give me a flight to Washington, D.C., a few nights in a reasonable hotel, and a car rental. I promise you that I’m extremely frugal — ask my mortgage broker — and I will spend every dollar of your contributions wisely. Additional money after $2,400 will allow me to draw a salary for the days I am there. If a substantial amount of extra money is raised, I’ll consider a second trip to D.C.

A NASA "poster" marking the one year to Pluto encounter by New Horizons. Credit: NASA

A NASA “poster” marking the one year to Pluto encounter by New Horizons. Credit: NASA

I’m not one to brag about my experience, but I will say that I’ve been proudly writing about space for a decade for many publications (including Universe Today). I’m one of the few journalists in Canada to focus on space virtually full-time. And I have covered some fun stories, such as three shuttle launches (2009-10), Chris Hadfield’s last mission (2012-13) and participating in a simulated Mars mission in Utah (early 2014). I see space as a field where I can always learn more, and this will be a great chance to share what I learn about Pluto with you.

Any questions? Feel free to get in touch with me at contact AT elizabethhowell DOT ca or to leave comments below. I likely won’t be able to respond until tomorrow as this launch coincidentally falls on a planned vacation day for me, but I promise that for the rest of the campaign I’ll answer your queries as fast as I can.

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Tim McDaniel
Member
Tim McDaniel
August 4, 2014 1:00 PM
My question: why does the definition matter at all? The various objects in the Solar System have various properties. A scientist usually studies only one topic at a time. If they want to study liquids, it’s Earth, Europa, Enceladus, Titan, and maybe a few more. Substantial atmospheres: Venus, Earth, maybe Mars, the gas giants, Titan. Large enough for interesting geology: anything near hydrostatic equilibrium, plus apparently Vesta. Ice: perhaps everything but Venus and Io. And there’s no term for any of those groups except the description “bodies that have such-and-so characteristic”. Any single definition is useful to at most one group, the people who are studying, working with, frequently referring to the objects that have that definition. For… Read more »
Serve vaessen
Member
Serve vaessen
August 4, 2014 2:12 PM
So, Elisabeth is asking for our money so that she can reopen the Pluto planethood debate? First of all, it eludes me what the relevance of the New Horizons mission is to this so called Pluto planethood debate. As Tim McDaniel already stated, why does the definition of a planet or dwarf planet matter at all? Second, there is no such thing as a controversial IAU vote about the status of Pluto. The resolution about Pluto demotion in 2006 was adopted by a large majority of astronomers that attended the IAU meeting in Prague. Of course, only a small minority of the international astronomical community attended the meeting in Prague, but with the exeption of a rather small… Read more »
gopher65
Member
gopher65
August 4, 2014 2:33 PM
Personally I’m not concerned with Pluto. It’s clear that it bears as little resemblance to Earth as Earth does to Jupiter. It’s just not possible to have a single, precisely defined word that includes all three objects (or even two of them) while *still being useful*. Such a word would have to be so vague as to be of no practical use. I’m more concerned about “hot Jupiters” (very close to star) vs our Jupiter vs “cold Jupiters” (takes millions of years to orbit star) vs rogue Jupiters (booted from their stars) vs star-like rogue Jupiters (formed out of a stellar nursery with high metal concentrations rather than a planetary disk, but are otherwise identical to rogue Jupiters).… Read more »
laurele
Member
August 4, 2014 4:51 PM
Sorry, but yes, there is a debate, and the IAU definition has remained controversial, not just in the US, but all over the world. There was no “large majority” who voted in Prague. Four percent of the IAU, most of whom are not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers, voted on this definition. They did so in violation of the IAU’s own bylaws, which require a resolution be first vetted by the appropriate IAU committee before being put to the General Assembly floor. That was not done, as the resolution adopted was thrown together on the very last day of the General Assembly and was done so behind the backs of many astronomers who should have had… Read more »
Serve vaessen
Member
Serve vaessen
August 5, 2014 3:50 AM
As I said, the IAU definition has its shortcommings, but it reflects our new insights after de discovery of the Kuiper belt in the early 1990ties. If Pluto was discovered in 1995 instead of 1930, it would never be regarded a planet but one of the many KBO’s. We don’t know (yet) if Pluto has a layered structure or if it’s geological actife. So you can’t proclaim Pluto to be a planet on those grounds.There isn’t such a thing as a Pluto debate. Please, show me the peer reviewed articles in the scientific literature that question the status of Pluto as a dwarf planet. Therefore we can safely assume that the large mayority of astronomers agree wit the… Read more »
laurele
Member
August 5, 2014 8:32 PM
The IAU definition reflects one interpretation generated by the discovery of the Kuiper Belt in the 1990s. It does not reflect any new information learned about our solar system and others since 2006. Many astronomers disagree with the claim that if Pluto were discovered today, it would not be considered a planet, just another KBO. Again, Pluto is clearly much larger and much more complex than the overwhelming majority of KBOs. The latter do not have atmospheres or geology; they are mostly rubble piles and iceballs. Debate over what Pluto is and how it should be classified dates all the way back to its discovery. The same debate was raised by the discovery of Eris. If Pluto were… Read more »
Olaf
Member
Olaf
August 5, 2014 1:17 PM

Aliens will object that you called their planets second sized exo-planets because they have a different heritage.

Mike Wrathell
Member
August 5, 2014 3:44 PM

The IAU’s 2006 reworking of the definition of a planet is controversial because it’s absurd. Also there were a number of shenanigans that occurred in Prague, including no vetting of the final resolution, and out and out bullying. I know one member who has publicly stated he was threatened with the destruction of his academic career were he to vote to keep Pluto a planet. To say it is solely an American thing is very provincial. For the good of Science, the definition of a planet needs to be redone to include dwarf planets as a third subcategory.

gopher65
Member
gopher65
August 4, 2014 2:17 PM
Any single, precise, non-spectrum based definition that includes both Earth and Jupiter as members is stupid. ie, the current definition of planet by the IAU. A decent definition would be a branching spectrum definition, starting at the point where gravity in the most important force that holds objects together (instead of chemical bonds), and ending at the point where fusion takes over as a dominant process. Branches naturally come off such a definition each time a new type of object is discovered. For instance, hot Jupiters and cold Jupiters wouldn’t be on the same secondary branch, but they’d connect to the main spectrum at the same point due to their similar masses. This is the *only* type of… Read more »
Manu
Member
Manu
August 4, 2014 2:20 PM

Thumbs up to both first comments. This is utterly ridiculous and totally devoid of science.

laurele
Member
August 4, 2014 4:52 PM

Then why did the IAU devote so much time and energy to it? They opened this can of worms and now refuse to take responsibility for the confusion it has caused.

Zoutsteen
Member
Zoutsteen
August 4, 2014 2:56 PM

Before you run off to claim Pluto a planet, check out:

Cruithne, Earth’s “2nd Moon”
http://www.orbitsimulator.com/gravity/articles/cruithne.html

Pluto Orbit
http://www.orbitsimulator.com/gravity/articles/pluto.html

And Orcus
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/90482_Orcus
(Which has a nice simulation of its orbit halfway down the page. Which is the same as pluto, but 180 degrees shifted.)

Downgrading Pluto to a moon has a better chance of succes, as long as you don’t require that a Moon -should- orbit its Parent in less than a year. Every orbital period [of a moon] longer than a year would look different than simply circular.

Navneeth
Member
Navneeth
August 5, 2014 5:54 AM
“We’ll have some stuff about the science as well; stay tuned for the details!” Huh? Science is an afterthought?! What else are these interviews going to be about if not about the science? What have we (humans) learnt of significance about Pluto and KBOs in genreal since the “controversy” broke out that hasn’t already been said before? Laurele: “If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, it would not clear that orbit either. This means the IAU definition could result in the absurdity of the same object being classed as a planet in one location and not as a planet in another.” That’s a BIG If. And a bit of a straw man. For one, we wouldn’t be here to… Read more »
Olaf
Member
Olaf
August 5, 2014 1:23 PM

When you place Earth at the distance of Pluto then it not would not have cleared its orbit and thus also not be classified as a planet.

However the Moon did clear its orbit and that could be regarded as a planet.

It would be interesting how big a planet needs to be in order to clear its orbit at Pluto distance. Could a mass of Jupiter have done it?

gopher65
Member
gopher65
August 5, 2014 3:25 PM

Any of the inner planets could have cleared Pluto’s orbit. Mercury would juuuuuust have been able to do it. If there were only 2 major bodies in the universe, the sun and Jupiter, Jupiter would have to be about 100 lightyears away from the sun before it couldn’t clear its orbit. Jupiter is bigrazz.

Eris, the largest dwarf planet, would be considered a planet if it were at Earth’s distance from the sun. Pluto would have to be in Venus’s orbit.

Mike Wrathell
Member
August 5, 2014 3:33 PM

Pluto is larger than Eris, gopher65. Scientists have known this for over a year. See the findings by Bruno Sicardy of the Paris Observatory.

gopher65
Member
gopher65
August 5, 2014 10:58 PM

No it isn’t. Look it up. I just did, and Eris is 1.28 times more massive than Pluto.

laurele
Member
August 5, 2014 7:25 PM
The inner planets could not clear Pluto’s orbit. Dr. Hal Levison, an astronomer who actually supports a dynamical planet definition, did a series of calculations that clearly determined no planet the size of Earth or smaller would “clear” its orbit if it were where Pluto is. Eris is not the largest dwarf planet; that was determined four years ago by a team of astronomers led by Dr. Bruno Sicardy, who measured Eris more accurately when it occulted a star. If your statement were true, if Eris would be considered a planet at Earth’s orbit, then you once again point out a major flaw in the IAU definition–specifically, that the same object can be a planet in one location… Read more »
gopher65
Member
gopher65
August 5, 2014 11:02 PM

Here is the relevant Wiki page. As far as I can tell, everything there is accurate. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clearing_the_neighbourhood

Mike Wrathell
Member
August 5, 2014 3:37 PM

Speaking of hundreds of thousands of hypothetical objects just clouds the issue with space junk. There are only three confirmed dwarf planets past Pluto, none of which are larger than Pluto. Makemake, Haumea, and Eris. Chances are the IAU will not have the data needed to confirm Sedna, Biden, or any other objects past Pluto as a dwarf planet in our lifetime unless we develop much faster propulsion systems.

laurele
Member
August 5, 2014 7:40 PM
“We’ll have some stuff about the science as well; stay tuned for the details!” That comment refers to the new data we will learn from the New Horizons mission during the flyby. There is no single model of solar system formation. Every time a new exoplanet system that shouldn’t exist is discovered, astronomers go back to the drawing board to determine how such a system could have formed. It’s safe to say our knowledge of solar system formation, even of how our own solar system formed, is limited and incomplete. There may be a Mars-sized object orbiting the Sun much further than Pluto, and this would once more lead astronomers back to the drawing board in considering how… Read more »
Mike Wrathell
Member
August 5, 2014 3:29 PM
I think it is wonderful that Ms. Howell would like to learn more about NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and about the reasons why the IAU’s 2006 definition of a planet is in desperate need of an upgrade. We should support her trip to go interview members of the New Horizons team. Dwarf stars (and our sun is a yellow dwarf star) are still stars. It is only right that dwarf planets be a subcategory of planets. Like Olaf said, Earth would not clear its orbit if it were as far out as Pluto. The third rung of the current IAU definition is superfluous. A planet is a planet by virtue of what it is. A core,… Read more »
kwestdjonmarc
Member
kwestdjonmarc
August 6, 2014 1:04 PM

Hmm.. As stated numerous times here on Universe Today, even in a video making the declaration, Pluto is a dwarf planet. That does not mean that there is not a billion things to learn from mysterious Pluto, but it does mean that public money will be better spent elsewhere other than debating and/or exploring the different sides of the debate that is purported to be ongoing about Pluto’s planethood. I think Elizabeth, or “Laurele”, should find a new tack if she wishes to use public money. Just an opinion, of course.

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