New Reasons why Pluto Should be Considered a Planet After All

In 2006, during their 26th General Assembly, the International Astronomic Union (IAU) passed a resolution to adopt a formal definition for the term “planet”. According to this definition, bodies that orbit the Sun, are spherical, do not orbit other bodies, and have cleared their orbits were designated planets. Pluto, and other such bodies that did not meet all of these requirements, would thereafter be designated as “dwarf planets”.

However, according to a new study led by Philip T. Metzger – a planetary scientists from the Florida Space Institute (at the University of Central Florida) – the IAU’s standard for classifying planets is not supported by the research literature on Pluto, and is therefore invalid. For those people who have maintained that “Pluto is still planet” for the past twelve years, this is certainly good news!

Continue reading “New Reasons why Pluto Should be Considered a Planet After All”

Pluto’s Charon Gets Mountains Named After Sci-Fi Authors Octavia Butler and Arthur C. Clarke, as Well as Many Others From History and Legend. I Approve!

In 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. In addition to revealing things about the planet’s atmosphere, its geology and system of moons, the probe also provided the first clear images of the surface of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Because of this, scientists are now able to study Pluto and Charon’s many curious surface features and learn more about their evolution.

Another interesting thing that has resulted from this surface imaging has been the ability to name these features. Recently, the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature officially approved of a dozen names that had been proposed by NASA’s New Horizons team. These names honor legendary explorers and visionaries, both real and fictitious, and include science fiction authors Octavia Butler and Arthur C. Clarke.

Aside from being Pluto’s largest moon, Charon is also one of the larger bodies in the Kuiper Belt. Because of its immense size, Charon does not orbit Pluto in the strictest sense. In truth, the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon system is outside Pluto, meaning the two bodies almost orbit each other. The moon also has a wealth of features, which include valleys, crevices, and craters similar to what have been seen on other moons.

Artist’s impression of New Horizons’ close encounter with the Pluto–Charon system. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

For some time, the New Horizons team has been using a series of informal names to describe Charon’s many features. The team gathered most of them during the online public naming campaign they hosted in 2015. Known as  “Our Pluto“, this campaign consisted of people from all over the world contributed their suggestions for naming features on Pluto and Charon.

The New Horizons team also contributed their own suggestions and (according to the IAU) was instrumental in moving the new names through approval. As Dr. Alan Stern, the New Horizon team leader, told Universe Today via email: “We conduced a public feature name bank process in 2015 before flyby. Once flyby was complete our science team created a naming proposal for specific features and sent it to IAU.”

A similar process took place last year, where the IAU officially adopted 14 place names that were suggested by the New Horizons team – many of which were the result of the online naming campaign. Here too, the names were those that the team had been using informally to describe the many regions, mountain ranges, plains, valleys and craters that were discovered during the spacecraft’s flyby.

The names that were ultimately selected honored the spirit of epic exploration, which the New Horizons mission demonstrated by being the first probe to reach Pluto. As such, the names that were adopted honored travelers, explorers, scientists, pioneering journeys, and mysterious destinations. For example, Butler Mons honors Octavia E. Butler, a celebrated author and the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur fellowship.

Global map of Pluto’s moon Charon pieced together from images taken at different resolutions. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Similarly, Clarke Montes honors Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the prolific writer and futurist who co-wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which he later turned into a series of novels). Stanley Kubrik, who produced and directed 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also honored with the feature Kubrik Mons. Meanwhile, several craters were named in honor of fictional characters from famous stories and folklore.

The Revati Crater is named after the main character in the Hindu epic narrative Mahabharata while the Nasreddin Crater is named for the protagonist in thousands of folktales told throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and parts of Asia. Nemo Crater honors the captain of the Nautilus in Jule’s Verne’s novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874).

The Pirx Crater is name after the main character in a series of short stories by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, while the Dorothy Crater takes its name from the protagonist in The Wizard of Oz, one of several children’s stories by L. Frank Baum that was set in this magical land.

As Rita Schulz, chair of the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, commented, “I am pleased that the features on Charon have been named with international spirit.” Dr. Alan Stern expressed similar sentiments. When asked if he was happy with the new names that have been approved, he said simply, “Very.”

Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule), a Kuiper Belt object that orbits 1.6 billion km (1 billion mi) beyond Pluto, on Jan. 1st, 2019. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

Even though the encounter with the Pluto system happened almost three years ago, scientists are still busy studying all the information gathered during the historic flyby. In addition, the New Horizons spacecraft will be making history again in the not-too-distant future. At present, the spacecraft is making its way farther into the outer Solar System with the intention of rendezvousing with two Kuiper Belt Objects.

On Jan. 1st, 2019, it will rendezvous with its first destination, the KBO known as 2014 MU69 (aka. “Ultima Thule“). This object will be the most primitive object ever observed by a spacecraft, and the encounter will the farthest ever achieved in space exploration. Before this intrepid exploration mission is complete, we can expect that a lot more of the outer Solar System will be mapped and named.

Further Reading: IAU

86 Stars Just got Official Names from the IAU

When we think of the most commonly-known stars in the night sky, what springs to mind? Chances are, it would be stars like Sirius, Vega, Deneb, Rigel, Betelgeuse, Polaris, and Arcturus – all of which derive their names from Arabic, Greek or Latin origins. Much like the constellations, these names have been passed down from one astronomical tradition to another and were eventually adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

But what about the astronomical traditions of Earth’s many, many other cultures? Don’t the names they applied to heavens also deserve mention? According to the IAU, they do indeed! After a recent meeting by the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN), the IAU formally adopted 86 new names for stars that were drawn largely from the Australian Aboriginal, Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, Polynesian, and South African peoples.

The WGSN is an international group of astronomers tasked with cataloguing and standardizing the star names used by the international astronomical community. This job entails establishing IAU guidelines for the proposals and adoption of names, searching through international historical and literary sources for star names, adopting names of unique historical and cultural value, and maintaining and disseminating the official IAU star catalog.

Star map painting by Senior Wardaman Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney, featuring the Milky Way, the Moon, and ancestor spirits. Credit: IAU

Last year, the WGSN approved the names for 227 stars; and with this new addition, the catalogue now contains the names of 313 stars. Unlike standard star catalogues, which contained millions or even billions of star that are designated using strings of letters and numbers, the IAU star catalog consists of bright stars that have proper names that are derived from historical and cultural sources.

As Eric Mamajek, chair and organizer of the WGSN, indicated in a IAU press release:

The IAU Working Group on Star Names is researching traditional star names from cultures around the world and adopting unique names and spellings to avoid confusion in astronomical catalogues and star atlases. These names help ensure that intangible astronomical heritage from skywatchers around the world, and across the centuries, are preserved for use in an era of exoplanetary systems.

A total of eleven Chinese star names were incorporated into the catalogue, three of which are derived from the “lunar mansions” of traditional Chinese astronomy. This refers to vertical strips of the sky that act as markers for the progress of the Moon across the sky during the course of a year. In this sense, they provide a basis for the lunar calendar in the same way that the zodiac worked for Western calendars.

Two names were derived from the ancient Hindu lunar mansions as well. These stars are Revati and Bharani, which designate Zeta Piscium and 41 Arietis, respectively. In addition to being a lunar mansion, Revati was also the daughter of King Kakudmi in Hindu mythology and the consort of the God Balarama – the elder brother of Krishna. Bharani, on the other hand, is the name for the second lunar mansion in Hindu astronomy and is ruled by Shurka (Venus).

Position of the Hindu Nakshatra Mandala, the “lunar mansions” in Hindu mythology. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/ Kishorekumar 62

Beyond the astronomical traditions of India and China, there’s also two names adopted from the Khoikhoi people of South Africa and the people of Tahiti – Xamidimura and Pipirima. These names were approved for Mu¹ and Mu² Scorpii, the stars that make up a binary system located in the constellation of Scorpius. The name Xamidimura is derived from the Khoikhoi name for the star xami di mura – literally “eyes of the lion”.

Pipirima, meanwhile, refers to the inseparable twins from Tahitian mythology, a boy and a girl who ran away from their parents and became stars in the night sky. Then you have the Yucatec Mayan name Chamukuy, the name of a small bird which now designates the star Theta-2 Tauri, which is located in the Hyades star cluster in Taurus.

Four Aboriginal Australian star names were also added to catalogue, including the Wardaman names Larawag, Ginan, and Wurren and the Boorong name Unurgunite. These names now designate Epsilon Scorpii, Epsilon Crucis, Zeta Pheonicis, and Sigma Canis Majoris, respectively. Given that Aboriginal Australians have traditions that go back as far as 65,000 years, these names are some of the oldest in existence.

The brightest star to receive a new name was Alsephina, which was given to the star previously designated as Delta Velorum. The name stems from the Arabic name al-safinah (“the ship”), which refers to the ancient Greek constellation Argo Navis (the ship of the Argonauts). This name goes back to the 10th century Arabic translation of the Almagest, which was compiled by Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE.

Artist’s concept of exoplanets orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltec

The new catalog also includes Barnard’s Star, a name which has been in common usage for about a century, but was never an official designation. This red dwarf star, which is less than 6 light-years from Earth, is named after the astronomer who discovered it – Edward Emerson Barnard – in 1916. It now joins Alsafi (Sigma Draconis), Achird (Eta Cassiopeiae) and Tabit (Pi-3 Orionis) as being one of four nearby stars whose proper names were approved in 2017.

One of the hallmarks of modern astronomy is the way that naming conventions are moving away from traditional Western and Classical sources and broadening to become more worldly. In addition to being a more inclusive, multicultural approach, it reflects the growing trend in astronomical research and space exploration, which is one of international cooperation.

Someday, assuming our progeny ever go forth and begin to colonize distant star systems, we can expect that the suns and the planets they come to know will have names that reflect the diverse astronomical traditions of Earth’s many, many cultures.

Further Reading: IAU

The Crater Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at “The Cup” – the Crater constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age

One of these constellation is Crater (aka. “The Cup”), an asterism located in the Southern Hemisphere. This small constellation is located south of the ecliptic plane, with no bright marker stars. As part of the Hercules family, it is bordered by the constellations of Leo, Sextans, Hydra, Corvus and Virgo. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union.

Name and Meaning:

In Greek mythology, Crater represents the Cup of Apollo – the god of the skies – which is due to its chalice-like configuration. The cup is being held up by the Raven – Corvus – another figure in Greek mythology. The tale, much like many mythological stories, is a sad one, and begins with the Raven being sent to fetch water for his master, Apollo.

Unfortunately, Corvus (the Raven) was distracted as he became tempted by a fig, and then waited too long for it to ripen. When he realized his mistake, he returned sorrowfully to Apollo with his cup (Crater) and brought along the serpent Hydra in his claws as well. Angry, Apollo tossed all three into the sky for all eternity, where they became part of the starry firmament.

Corvus, Crater and other constellations seen around Hydra. From Urania's Mirror (1825). Credit: US Library of Congress
Corvus, Crater and other constellations seen around Hydra. From Urania’s Mirror (1825). Credit: US Library of Congress

History of Observation:

The Crater constellation comes to us from Classical Antiquity and was recorded by Ptolemy in his 2nd-century CE tract the Almagest. However, it was also recognized by Chinese astronomers, where the stars associated with it were viewed as being part the Vermillion Bird of the South (Nan Fang Zhu Que). Along with the some of the stars from Hydra, they depict the Red Bird’s wings.

Notable Objects:

Crater has only a few bright stars associated with it and no Messier Objects. The brightest, Delta Crateris, is an orange giant located approximately 196 light yeas from Earth. The star is also known as Labrum (Latin for “the lip”), due to the fact that it was sometimes associated with the story of the Holy Grail.

Next is Alpha Crateris, an orange giant located approximately 174 light-years from Earth which is 80 times more luminous than our Sun. It is also known as Alkes, derived from the Arabic word alkas, which means “the cup”. Then there’s Beta Crateris, a white sub-giant that is located approximately 266 light years from Earth. This star is also known by the name Al Sharasif, which means “the ribs” in Arabic.

In terms of Deep Sky Objects, Crater has no associated Messier Objects, but a few galaxies can be found in its region of the night sky. These include the Crater 2 dwarf galaxy, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way that is located approximately 380,000 light years from Earth. There’s also the spiral galaxy known as NGC 3511, which has a slight bar and is seen from Earth nearly edge-on.

The spiral galaxy NGC 3887, located in the constellation Crater. Credit: NASA (Wikisky)

There’s also the NGC 3887 and NGC 2981 spiral galaxies, and the RX J1131 quasar, which is located 6 billion light years away from Earth. Interestingly, the black hole at the center of this quasar was the first to have its spin directly measured by astronomers.

Finding Crater:

Crater is visible at latitudes between +65° and -90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of April. It is comprised of only 4 main stars, and 12 stars with Bayer/Flamsteed designations. In order to spot these stars, observers should begin by looking for the Alpha star (the “a” shape on their star map) with binoculars.

Situated some 174 light-years from Earth, Alpha Crateris (the star’s official designation) is a spectral class K1 star – an orange giant that’s a little different from the rest. This is because Alkes is a “high velocity” star, which means it moves far faster than the stars around it. Another thing that sets it apart is its high metal content, which according to some researchers, it may have picked up when it came from the inner, metal-rich part of the Galaxy.

Artist's impression of Alkes - aka. Alpha Crateris. Credit:
Artist’s impression of Alkes – aka. Alpha Crateris – a K1 orange giant star in the Crater constellation. Credit:

Next, observers should look to Beta Crateris (the “B” shape on the map) which also goes by the name of Al Sharasif. This star is not an ordinary one either. For starters, Al Sharasif is about 265 light-years from our solar system, and it’s a white sub-giant star. To boot, it also has a low mass, white dwarf companion – which is why astronomers classify it as a Sirius-like system.

Next up is Delta Crateris – the “8” symbol on the map – which is an orange giant, spectral class K0III star with an apparent magnitude of 3.56. In time, this star will become an even larger giant, eventually turning into a Mira-type variable star before ending its life as a white dwarf. Oddly enough, Labrum has a very low metal content compared to its Crater-neighbors, containing about 40% as much iron as our own Sun.

At this point, observers with telescopes and have a look at Gamma Crateris – the “Y” shape on the map. Gamma Crateris is a fixed binary white dwarf star with an easy separation of 5.2″. Gamma itself is 89 light-years for Earth, which is rather hard to believe when you try to seek out the 9.5 stellar magnitude companion that accompanies it.

Although this is a disparate double star, it is still quite fun and easy to spot with a small telescope. For a challenge, try Iota Crateris – a close binary star with an 11th magnitude companion that’s only separated by 1.4″. Psi Crateris is an even closer binary. Both stars are within a half magnitude of each other, but the separation is only 0.2″.

Artist's impression of white dwarf binary pair CSS 41177. Image: Andrew Taylor.
Artist’s impression of white dwarf binary pair, a type of star system that describes Gamma Crateris. Credit: Andrew Taylor.

Next up is R Crateris, a variable star that can be observed with binoculars, and which is located at RA 10 56 Dec -17 47. You will notice it by its lovely red color and its nice change of magnitude, which goes from 8 to 9.5 in a period of about 160 days. And then there’s SZ Crateris, a magnitude 8.1 variable star. It is a nearby star system located about 44 light years from the Sun and is known as Gliese 425 – which in the past was known as Abt’s Star.

While there’s no brighter deep sky objects for binoculars or small telescopes, there are a couple of challenging galaxies in the Crater constellation that are well suited to a large aperture. Let’s start with the brightest – elliptical galaxy NGC 3962 – which is easy to spot (like all elliptical galaxies), though there’s not much detail to be seen. Even if it is not terribly exciting to behold, it is on the Herschel 400 observing list.

And then there’s NGC 3887 (11h47.1 -16 51), a nice spiral galaxy that’s only slightly fainter. It has two faint stars which accompany it and a stellar nucleus which occasionally makes an appearance and provides an opportunity for some very interesting viewing. Both of these galaxies are in the slightly fainter range, both being just under magnitude 11.

Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
List of the stars that appear in the Crater constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine/Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg

Observers who are skilled with telescopes should also keep and eye out for NGC 3511 (11h03.4 -23 05), a spiral galaxy of magnitude 11.5. It is joined in the same field of view by NGC 3513, a barred spiral galaxy that is a full magnitude dimmer. People with larger telescopes should also take a crack at spotting NGC 3672 (11h25.0 -09 48), a faint spiral galaxy that nevertheless has nice halo and a bright, apparent nucleus.

And last, but not least, there is NGC 3981 (11h56.1 -19 54), a beautifully inclined, magnitude 12 spiral galaxy that has a bright nucleus, and which sometimes shows some spiral galaxy structure when observing conditions are right.

Drink up… the “Cup” is waiting!

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Canes Venatici and Constellation Families.


The Chamaeleon Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with that famous lizard that specializes at blending in – the Chamaeleon constellation!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

In time, this list would come to be expanded as astronomers became aware of more asterisms in the night sky. One of these is Chamaeleon, a small constellation located in the southern sky that was first defined in the 16th century. This constellation was appropriately named, given its ability to blend into the background! Today, it is one of the 88 constellations recognized by the IAU.

Name and Meaning:

Since Chamaeleon was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, it has no mythology associated with it, but it’s not hard to understand how it came about its fanciful name. As exploration of the southern hemisphere began, what biological wonders were discovered! Can you imagine how odd a creature that could change its skin color to match its surroundings would be to someone who wasn’t familiar with lizards?

Map of the dark molecular clouds associated with the Chamaeleon constellation. Credit: Roberto Mura

Small wonder that a constellation that blended right in with the background stars could be considered a “chamaeleon” or that it might be pictured sticking its long tongue out to capture its insectile constellation neighbor – Musca the “fly”!

History of Observation:

Chamaeleon was one of twelve constellations created by Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman between 1595 and 1597. Both were Dutch navigators and early astronomical explorers who made attempts to chart southern hemisphere skies. Their work was added to Johann Bayer’s “Uranometeria” catalog in 1603, where Chamaeleon was first introduced as one of the 12 new southern constellations and its stars given Bayer designations.

To this day, Chamaeleon remain as one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the IAU and it is bordered by Musca, Carina, Volans, Mensa, Octans and Apus. It contains only 3 main stars, the brightest of which is 4th magnitude Alpha – but it also has 16 Bayer/Flamsteed designated stars within its boundaries.

Notable Features:

The Chamaeleon constellation is home to several notable stars. These include Alpha Chamaeleontis, a spectral type F5III star located approximately 63.5 light years from Earth. Beta Chamaeleontis is a main sequence star that is approximately 270 light years distant. This star is the third brightest in the constellation, after Alpha and Gamma Chamaeleontis.

Artist’s concept of “hot Jupiter”, a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting closely to its star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

And then there’s HD 63454, a K-type main sequence star located approximately 116.7 light years away. It lies near the south celestial pole and is slightly cooler and less luminous than the Sun. In February of 2005, a hot Jupiter-like planet (HD 63454 b) was discovered orbiting the star.

The “Chamaeleon” also disguises itself with a huge number of dark molecular clouds that are often referred to as the “Chamaeleon Cloud Complex”. Situation about 15 degrees below the galactic plane, it is accepted is one of the closest low mass star forming regions to the Sun with a distance of about 400 to 600 light years.

Within these clouds are pre-main sequence star candidates, and low-mass T Tauri stars. The southern region of the Chamaeleon Cloud is a complex pattern of dark knots connected by elongated, dark, wavy filaments, with a serpentine-like shape. Bright rims with finger-like extensions are apparent, and a web of very faint, extremely thin but very long and straight shining filaments.

These feeble structures, reflecting stellar light, extend over the entire Chamaeleon complex and are considered very young – not yet capable of the type of collapse needed to introduce major star formation. Thanks to Gemini Near Infrared Spectrograph (GNIRS) on Gemini South Telescope, a very faint infrared object confirmed – a very low-mass, newborn brown dwarf star and the lowest mass brown dwarf star found to date in the Chamaeleon I cloud complex.

A newly formed star lights up the surrounding cosmic clouds in this image from ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO

Chamaeleon is also home to the Eta Chamaeleontis Cluster (aka. Mamajek 1). This open star cluster, which is centered on the star Eta Chamaeleontis, is approximately 316 light years distant and believed to be around eight million years old. The cluster was discovered in 1999 and consists of 12 or so relatively young stars. It was also the first open cluster discovered because of its X-ray emissions its member stars emit.

Finding Chamaeleon:

Chamaeleon is visible at latitudes between +0° and -90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of April. Now take out your telescope and aim it towards Eta for a look at newly discovered galactic star cluster – the Eta Chamaeleontis cluster – Mamajek 1. In 1999, a cluster of young, X-ray-emitting stars was found in the vicinity of eta Chamaeleontis from a deep ROSAT high-resolution imager observation.

They are believed to be pre-main-sequence weak-lined T Tauri stars, with an age of up to 12 million years old. The cluster itself is far from any significant molecular cloud and thus it has mysterious origins – not sharing proper motions with other young stars in the Chamaeleon region. There’s every possibility it could be a moving star cluster that’s a part of the Scorpius/Centaurus OB star association!

For binoculars, take a look at fourth magnitude Alpha Chamaeleontis. It is a rare class F white giant star that is about 63.5 light years from Earth. It is estimated to be about 1.5 billion years old. Its spectrum shows it to be a older giant with a dead helium core, yet its luminosity and temperature show it to be a younger dwarf.

The location of the Chamaeleon Constellation. Credit: IAU /Sky&Telescope magazine

Now point your binoculars or telescope towards Delta Chamaeleontis. While these two stars aren’t physically connect to one another, the visual double star is exceptionally pleasing with one orange component and one blue.

Last, but not least, take a look at Gamma Chamaeleontis. Although the south celestial pole currently lacks a bright star like Polaris to mark its position, the precession of the equinoxes will change that. One day – in the next 7500 years – the south celestial pole will pass close to the stars Gamma Chamaeleontis. But don’t wait up…

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Canes Venatici and Constellation Families.


Newly Discovered House-Sized Asteroid 2017 HX4 Flew Safely Past the Earth Yesterday

Yesterday (on May 8th, 2017), an asteroid swung past Earth on its way towards the Sun. This Near Earth Object (NEO), known as 2017 HX4, measures between 10 and 33 meters (32.8 and 108 feet) and made its closest approach to Earth at 11:58 am UT (7:58 am EDT; 4:58 am PT). Naturally, there were surely those who wondered if this asteroid would hit us and trigger a terrible cataclysm!

But of course, like most NEOs that periodically make a close pass to Earth, 2017 HX4 passed us by at a very safe distance. In fact, the asteroid’s closest approach to Earth was estimated to be at a distance of 3.7 Lunar Distances (LD) – i.e. almost four times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. This, and other pertinent information was tweeted in advance by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (IAU MPC) on April 29th.

This object was first spotted on April 26th, 2017, using the 1.8 meter Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), located at the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii. Since that time, it has been monitored by multiple telescopes around the world, and its tracking data and information about its orbit and other characteristics has been provided by the IAU MPC.

Interactive Orbit Sketch, showing the orbit of the Near Earth Object (NEO) known as 2017 HX4. Credit: IAU MPC

With funding provided by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations program, the IAU MPC maintains a centralized database that is responsible for the identification, designation and orbit computations of all the minor planets, comets and outer satellites of the Solar System. Since it’s inception, it has been maintaining information on 16,202 Near-Earth Objects, 729,626 Minor Planets, and 3,976 comets.

But it is the NEOs that are of particular interest, since they periodically make close approaches to Earth. In the case of 2017 HX4, the object has been shown to have an orbital period of 2.37 years, following a path that takes it from beyond the orbit of Venus to well beyond the orbit of Mars. In other words, it orbits our Sun at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1.776 AU, ranging from about 0.88 AU at perihelion to 2.669 AU at aphelion.

Since it was first spotted, the object has been viewed a total of 41 times between April 26th and May 4th. In addition to the Pan-STARRS-1 survey, observations were also provided by the Cerro Tololo Observatory, the Mauna Kea Observatories, the Steward Observatory and the Kitt Peak-Spacewatch Telescopes, the Astronomical Research Observatory, the Apache Point Observatory, and the Mount John Observatory.

PS1 at dawn. The mountain in the distance is Mauna Kea, about 130 kilometers southeast. Credit:

From these combined observations, the IAU MPC was able to compile information on the object’s orbital period, when it would cross Earth’s orbit, and just how close it would come to us in the process. So, as always, there was nothing to worry about here folks. These objects are always spotted before they cross Earth’s orbit, and their paths, periods and velocities and are known about in advance.

Even so, it’s worth noting that an object of this size was nowhere near to be large enough to cause an Extinction Level Event. In fact, the asteroid that struck Earth 65 millions year ago at the end of Cretaceous era – which created the Chicxulub Crater on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs – was estimated to measure 10 km across.

At 10 to 33 meters (32.8 to 108 feet), this asteroid would certainly have caused considerable damage if it hit us. But the results would not exactly have been cataclysmic. Still, it might not be too soon to consider getting off this ball of rock. You know, before – as Hawking has warned – a single event is able to claim all of humanity in one fell swoop!

The MPC is currently tracking the 13 NEOs that were discovered during the month of May alone, and that’s just so far. Expect to hear more about rocks that might cross our path in the future.

Further Reading: IAU Minor Planet Center

Sad About Pluto? How about 110 Planets in the Solar System Instead?

In 2006, during their 26th General Assembly, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) adopted a formal definition of the term “planet”. This was done in the hopes of dispelling ambiguity over which bodies should be designated as “planets”, an issue that had plagued astronomers ever since they discovered objects beyond the orbit of Neptune that were comparable in size to Pluto.

Needless to say, the definition they adopted resulted in fair degree of controversy from the astronomical community. For this reason, a team of planetary scientists – which includes famed “Pluto defender” Alan Stern – have come together to propose a new meaning for the term “planet”. Based on their geophysical definition, the term would apply to over 100 bodies in the Solar System, including the Moon itself.

The current IAU definition (known as Resolution 5A) states that a planet is defined based on the following criteria:

“(1) 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 neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A “dwarf 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 , (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects , except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar-System Bodies”

Results of a study combining Kepler observations with Herschel data show that 2007 OR10 is the largest unnamed dwarf planet in our Solar System, and the third largest overall. Illustration: Konkoly Observatory/András Pál, Hungarian Astronomical Association/Iván Éder, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The dwarf planets of the Solar System, arranged according to size. Credit: Konkoly Observatory/András Pál, Hungarian Astronomical Association/Iván Éder, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Because of these qualifiers, Pluto was no longer considered a planet, and became known alternately as a “dwarf planet”, Plutiod, Plutino, Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO), or Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). In addition, bodies like Ceres, and newly discovered TNOs like Eris, Haumea, Makemake and the like, were also designated as “dwarf planets”. Naturally, this definition did not sit right with some, not the least of which are planetary geologists.

Led by Kirby Runyon – a final year PhD student from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University – this team includes scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado; the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tuscon, Arizona; the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at George Mason University.

Their study – titled “A Geophysical Planet Definition“, which was recently made available on the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) website – addresses what the team sees as a need for a new definition that takes into account a planet’s geophysical properties. In other words, they believe a planet should be so-designated based on its intrinsic properties, rather than its orbital or extrinsic properties.

From this more basic set of parameters, Runyon and his colleagues have suggested the following definition:

“A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters.”

The most iconic image from the New Horizon’s July 2015 flyby, showing Pluto’s ‘heart.’ Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

As Runyon told Universe Today in a phone interview, this definition is an attempt to establish something that is useful for all those involved in the study of planetary science, which has always included geologists:

“The IAU definition is useful to planetary astronomers concerned with the orbital properties of bodies in the Solar System, and may capture the essence of what a ‘planet’ is to them. The definition is not useful to planetary geologists. I study landscapes and how landscapes evolve. It also kind of irked me that the IAU took upon itself to define something that geologists use too.

“The way our brain has evolved, we make sense of the universe by classifying things. Nature exists in a continuum, not in discrete boxes. Nevertheless, we as humans need to classify things in order to bring order out of chaos. Having a definition of the word planet that expresses what we think a planet ought to be, is concordant with this desire to bring order out of chaos and understand the universe.”

The new definition also attempts to tackle many of the more sticky aspects of the definition adopted by the IAU. For example, it addresses the issue of whether or not a body orbits the Sun – which does apply to those found orbiting other stars (i.e. exoplanets). In addition, in accordance with this definition, rogue planets that have been ejected from their solar systems are technically not planets as well.

And then there’s the troublesome issue of “neighborhood clearance”. As has been emphasized by many who reject the IAU’s definition, planets like Earth do not satisfy this qualification since new small bodies are constantly injected into planet-crossing orbits – i..e Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). On top of that, this proposed definition seeks to resolve what is arguably one of the most regrettable aspects of the IAU’s 2006 resolution.

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

“The largest motivation for me personally is: every time I talk about this to the general public, the very next thing people talk about is ‘Pluto is not a planet anymore’,” said Runyon. “People’s interest in a body seems tied to whether or not it has the name ‘planet’ labelled on it. I want to set straight in the mind of the public what a planet is. The IAU definition doesn’t jive with my intuition and I find it doesn’t jive with other people‘s intuition.”

The study was prepared for the upcoming 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. This annual conference – which will be taking place this year from March 20th-24th at the Universities Space Research Association in Houston, Texas – will involve specialists from all over the worlds coming together to share the latest research findings in planetary science.

Here, Runyon and his colleagues hope to present it as part of the Education and Public Engagement Event. It is his hope that through an oversized poster, which is a common education tool at Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, they can show how this new definition will facilitate the study of the Solar System’s many bodies in a way that is more intuitive and inclusive.

“We have chosen to post this in a section of the conference dedicated to education,” he said. “Specifically, I want to influence elementary school teachers, grades K-6, on the definitions that they can teach their students. This is not the first time someone has proposed a definition other than the one proposed by the IAU. But few people have talked about education. They talk among their peers and little progress is made. I wanted to post this in a section to reach teachers.”

In accordance with the definition proposed by Runyon, bodies like Ceres and even the moon would be considered “planets”. Credit: NASA/ JPL/Planetary Society/Justin Cowart

Naturally, there are those who would raise concerns about how this definition could lead to too many planets. If intrinsic property of hydrostatic equilibrium is the only real qualifier, then large bodies like Ganymede, Europa, and the Moon would also be considered planets. Given that this definition would result in a Solar System with 110 “planets”, one has to wonder if perhaps it is too inclusive. However, Runyon is not concerned by these numbers.

“Fifty states is a lot to memorize, 88 constellations is a lot to memorize,” he said. “How many stars are in the sky? Why do we need a memorable number? How does that play into the definition? If you understand the periodic table to be organized based on the number of protons, you don’t need to memorize all the atomic elements. There’s no logic to the IAU definition when they throw around the argument that there are too many planets in the Solar System.”

Since its publication, Runyon has also been asked many times if he intends to submit this proposal to the IAU for official sanction. To this, Runyon has replied simply:

“No. Because the assumption there is that the IAU has a corner on the market on what a definition is. We in the planetary science field don’t need the IAU definition. The definition of words is based partly on how they are used. If [the geophysical definition] is the definition that people use and what teachers teach, it will become the de facto definition, regardless of how the IAU votes in Prague.”

Regardless of where people fall on the IAU’s definition of planet (or the one proposed by Runyon and his colleagues) it is clear that the debate is far from over. Prior to 2006, there was no working definition of the term planet; and new astronomical bodies are being discovered all the time that put our notions of what constitutes a planet to the test.  In the end, it is the process of discovery which drives classification schemes, and not the other way around.

Further Reading: USRA

Image Source: Planetary Society

What is a Planet?

Humanity’s understanding of what constitutes a planet has changed over time. Whereas our most notable magi and scholars once believed that the world was a flat disc (or ziggurat, or cube), they gradually learned that it was in fact spherical. And by the modern era, they came to understand that the Earth was merely one of several planets in the known Universe.

And yet, our notions of what constitutes a planet are still evolving. To put it simply, our definition of planet has historically been dependent upon our frame of reference. In addition to discovering extra-solar planets that have pushed the boundaries of what we consider to be normal, astronomers have also discovered new bodies in our own backyard that have forced us to come up with new classification schemes.

History of the Term:

To ancient philosophers and scholars, the Solar Planets represented something entirely different than what they do today. Without the aid of telescopes, the planets looked like particularly bright stars that moved relative to the background stars. The earliest records on the motions of the known planets date back to the 2nd-millennium BCE, where Babylonian astronomers laid the groundwork for western astronomy and astrology.

These include the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, which catalogued the motions of Venus. Meanwhile, the 7th-century BCE MUL.APIN tablets laid out the motions of the Sun, the Moon, and the then-known planets over the course of the year (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). The Enuma anu enlil tablets, also dated to the 7th-century BCE, were a collection of all the omens assigned to celestial phenomena and the motions of the planets.

By classical antiquity, astronomers adopted a new concept of planets as bodies that orbited the Earth. Whereas some advocated a heliocentric system – such as 3rd-century BCE astronomer Aristarchus of Samos and 1st-century BCE astronomer Seleucus of Seleucia – the geocentric view of the Universe remained the most widely-accepted one. Astronomers also began creating mathematical models to predict their movements during this time.

This culminated in the 2nd century CE with Ptolemy’s (Claudius Ptolemaeus) publication of the Almagest, which became the astronomical and astrological canon in Europe and the Middle East for over a thousand years. Within this system, the known planets and bodies (even the Sun) all revolved around the Earth. In the centuries that followed, Indian and Islamic astronomers would added to this system based on their observations of the heavens.

By the time of the Scientific Revolution (ca. 15th – 18th centuries), the definition of planet began to change again. Thanks to Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler, who proposed and advanced the heliocentric model of the Solar System, planets became defined as objects that orbited the Sun and not Earth. The invention of the telescope also led to an improved understanding of the planets, and their similarities with Earth.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit:

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, countless new objects, moons and planets were discovered. This included Ceres, Vesta, Pallas (and the Main Asteroid Belt), the planets Uranus and Neptune, and the moons of Mars and the gas giants. And then in 1930, Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, which was designated as the 9th planet of the Solar System.

Throughout this period, no formal definition of planet existed. But an accepted convention existed where a planet was used to described any “large” body that orbited the Sun. This, and the convention of a nine-planet Solar System, would remain in place until the 21st century. By this time, numerous discoveries within the Solar System and beyond would lead to demands that a formal definition be adopted.

Working Group on Extrasolar Planets:

While astronomers have long held that other star systems would have their own system of planets, the first reported discovery of a planet outside the Solar System (aka. extrasolar planet or exoplanet) did not take place until 1992. At this time, two radio astronomers working out of the Arecibo Observatory (Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail) announced the discovery of two planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12.

The first confirmed discovery took place in 1995, when astronomers from the University of Geneva (Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz) announced the detection of 51 Pegasi. Between the mid-90s and the deployment of the Kepler space telescope in 2009, the majority of extrasolar planets were gas giants that were either comparable in size and mass to Jupiter or significantly larger (i.e. “Super-Jupiters”).

Earlier today, NASA announced that Kepler had confirmed the existence of 1,284 new exoplanets, the most announced at any given time. Credit: NASA

These new discoveries led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to create the Working Group of Extrasolar Planets (WGESP) in 1999. The stated purpose of the WGESP was to “act as a focal point for international research on extrasolar planets.” As a result of this ongoing research, and the detection of numerous extra-solar bodies, attempts were made to clarify the nomenclature.

As of February 2003, the WGESP indicated that it had modified its position and adopted the following “working definition” of a planet:

1) Objects with true masses below the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium (currently calculated to be 13 Jupiter masses for objects of solar metallicity) that orbit stars or stellar remnants are “planets” (no matter how they formed). The minimum mass/size required for an extrasolar object to be considered a planet should be the same as that used in our Solar System.

2) Substellar objects with true masses above the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium are “brown dwarfs”, no matter how they formed nor where they are located.

3) Free-floating objects in young star clusters with masses below the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium are not “planets”, but are “sub-brown dwarfs” (or whatever name is most appropriate).

As of January 22nd, 2017, more than 2000 exoplanet discoveries have been confirmed, with 3,565 exoplanet candidates being detected in 2,675 planetary systems (including 602 multiple planetary systems).

The number of confirmed exoplanet discoveries, by year. Credit: NASA

2006 IAU Resolution:

During the early-to-mid 2000s, numerous discoveries were made in the Kuiper Belt that also stimulated the planet debate. This began with the discovery of Sedna in 2003 by a team of astronomers (Michael Brown, Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz) working at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego. Ongoing observations confirmed that it was approx 1000 km in diameter, and large enough to undergo hydrostatic equilibrium.

This was followed by the discovery of Eris – an even larger object (over 2000 km in diameter) – in 2005, again by a team consisting of Brown, Trujillo, and Rabinowitz. This was followed by the discovery of Makemake on the same day, and Haumea a few days later. Other discoveries made during this period include Quaoar in 2002, Orcus in 2004,  and 2007 OR10 in 2007.

The discovery of a several objects beyond Pluto’s orbit that were large enough to be spherical led to efforts on behalf of the IAU to adopt a formal definition of a planet. By October 2005, a group of 19 IAU members narrowed their choices to a shortlist of three characteristics. These included:

  • A planet is any object in orbit around the Sun with a diameter greater than 2000 km. (eleven votes in favour)
  • A planet is any object in orbit around the Sun whose shape is stable due to its own gravity. (eight votes in favour)
  • A planet is any object in orbit around the Sun that is dominant in its immediate neighbourhood. (six votes in favour)

After failing to reach a consensus, the committee decided to put these three definitions to a wider vote. This took place in August of 2006 at the 26th IAU General Assembly Meeting in Prague. On August 24th, the issue was put to a final draft vote, which resulted in the adoption of a new classification scheme designed to distinguish between planets and smaller bodies. These included:

(1) 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.

(2) A “dwarf 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, (c) has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and  (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar-System Bodies”.

In accordance with this resolution, the IAU designated Pluto, Eris, and Ceres into the category of “dwarf planet”, while other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) were left undeclared at the time. This new classification scheme spawned a great deal of controversy and some outcries from the astronomical community, many of whom challenged the criteria as being vague and debatable in their applicability.

The presently-known largest trans-Neptunian objects (TNO), the discovery of which prompted the current IAU definition of planet. Credit: Larry McNish, Data: M.Brown)

For instance, many have challenged the idea of a planet clearing its neighborhood, citing the existence of near-Earth Objects (NEOs), Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids, and other instances where large planets share their orbit with other objects. However, these have been countered by the argument that these large bodies do not share their orbits with smaller objects, but dominate them and carry them along in their orbits.

Another sticking point was the issue of hydrostatic equilibrium, which is the point where a planet has sufficient mass that it will collapse under the force of its own gravity and become spherical. The point at which this takes place remains entirely unclear thought, and some astronomers therefore challenge it being included as a criterion.

In addition, some astronomers claim that these newly-adopted criteria are only useful insofar as Solar planets are concerned. But as exoplanet research has shown, planets in other star star systems can be significantly different. In particular, the discovery of numerous “Super Jupiters” and “Super Earths” has confounded conventional notions of what is considered normal for a planetary system.

In June 2008, the IAU executive committee announced the establishment of a subclass of dwarf planets in the hopes of clarifying the definitions further. Comprising the recently-discovered TNOs, they established the term “plutoids”, which would thenceforth include Pluto, Eris and any other future trans-Neptunian dwarf planets (but excluded Ceres). In time, Haumea, Makemake, and other TNOs were added to the list.

Despite these efforts and changes in nomenclature, for many, the issue remains far from resolved. What’s more, the possible existence of Planet 9 in the outer Solar System has added more weight to the discussion. And as our research into exoplanets continues – and uncrewed (and even crewed) mission are made to other star systems – we can expect the debate to enter into a whole new phase!

We have written many interesting articles about the planets here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Planets are there in the Solar System?, What are the Planets of the Solar System, The Planets of our Solar System in Order of Size, Why Pluto is no Longer a Planet, Evidence Continues to Mount for Ninth Planet, and What are Extrasolar Planets?.

For more information, take a look at this article from Scientific American, What is a Planet?, and the video archive from the IAU.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Pluto’s planetary identity crisis.