What makes a planet a planet? The Moon is so big compared to the Earth — roughly one-quarter our planet’s size — that occasionally you will hear our system being referred to as a “double planet”. Is this correct?
And we all remember how quickly the definition of a planet changed in 2006 when more worlds similar to Pluto were discovered. So can the Moon stay the Moon, or is the definition subject to change?
Defining a planet
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First, it’s important to understand what the official definition of a “planet” is, at least according to the International Astronomical Union. In its own words, according to a vote in Prague in 2006, the union has this definition:
“A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”
What this means is that a planet must move around the Sun (and not move around something else), that it’s massive enough to have a round shape due to gravity, and that it will swoop up any dust or debris in its orbit as it moves around the Sun.
But let’s be clear on something; the IAU definition of planet is not without controversy. There is still a strong contingent of people who say that Pluto is indeed a planet, including the principal investigator of a spacecraft (New Horizons) to examine the world: Alan Stern.
“It’s an awful definition; it’s sloppy science and it would never pass peer review,” he told the BBC in 2006. He said that the line between dwarf planets and planets is too artificial, and that the definition of a “cleared neighborhood” is muddy. The Earth alone has many asteroids that follow it — or approach or cross its orbit — not to mention the massive planet Jupiter.
Definition of a ‘satellite’
The Moon is not a unique phenomenon in our Solar System, in the sense that there are other planets that have satellites around them. Jupiter and Saturn have many dozens! Referring again to the IAU, the union also said in 2006 that it does not consider Charon a dwarf planet despite its large relative size to Pluto.
But Charon’s status as a moon could change in future, the IAU acknowledged. That’s primarily because the center of gravity in the system is not inside of Pluto, but in “free space between Pluto and Charon”. This center is called the “barycenter”, technically — and in Jupiter and Saturn’s cases, for example, all the barycenters of the various moons reside “inside” the huge gas giants.
Another caution, however: the IAU says “there has been no official recognition that the location of the barycenter is involved with the definition of a satellite.” So for now, it doesn’t have any bearing. That said, one question to consider is if the Moon’s barycenter is inside the Earth?
The answer right now is “yes”. But over time, that barycenter will move outside of Earth. That’s because the Moon is slowly receding from our planet at a rate of about 3.8 centimeters (1.5 inches) a year. It’ll take a long time, but eventually the center of our system’s mass will not be within our planet.
And if you read back to an IAU interview in 2006, you’ll see that at that time, the IAU defined a “double planet” as a system where both bodies meet the definition of a planet, and the barycenter is not inside either one of the objects. So for now, the Earth is a planet and the Moon a satellite — at least under IAU rules.
We have written many articles about the Moon for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how long it takes to get to the Moon, and here are some interesting facts about the Moon. We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Moon. Listen here, Episode 113: The Moon, Part 1.