Before 1930, there were 8 planets in the Solar System. And then with the discovery of Pluto in 1930, the total number of planets rose to 9. Although astronomers kept searching for more planets, it wasn’t until 2005 that an object larger than Pluto was found orbiting in the distant Solar System. This new object was known as Eris, and many considered it to be a tenth planet; but it actually created a controversy that ended up with Pluto being kicked out of the planet club and becoming a dwarf planet. There really is no 10th planet, in fact, we don’t even have a ninth planet any more.
Eris, originally named 2003 ub 313 was discovered by Palomar observatory researcher Mike Brown; Mike has been behind many of the trans-Neptunian discoveries in the last decade. Mike and his team discovered Eris by systematically scanning the sky for objects moving at the right speed in the right object to be in the outer Solar System.
Further observations of Eris showed that it was actually larger than Pluto by a significant amount; it measured 2,500 km across, compared to Pluto’s 2,300 km diameter. And it orbited at a distance of 67 astronomical units, compared to Pluto’s 39 AU (1 AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun).
Because there was now a larger object than Pluto found orbiting the Sun, astronomers needed to decide whether this would be come the tenth planet. At a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in 2006, astronomers decided to redefine their classification of a planet. And these new rules excluded Eris. Instead of becoming the tenth planet, Eris became a dwarf planet; the same fate as Pluto.
If you’d like more info on Eris, check out NASA’s page on Eris.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast that explains why Pluto isn’t a planet any more. Listen here, Episode 1: Pluto’s Planetary Identity Crisis.