A Recipe for Returning Pluto to Full Planethood

A storm is brewing, a battle of words and a war of the worlds. The Earth is not at risk. It is mostly a civil dispute, but it has the potential to influence the path of careers. In 2014, a Harvard led debate was undertaken on the question: Is Pluto a planet. The impact of the definition of planet and everything else is far reaching – to the ends of the Universe.

It could mean a count of trillions of planets in our galaxy alone or it means leaving the planet Pluto out of the count – designation, just a dwarf planet. This is a question of how to classify non-stellar objects. What is a planet, asteroid, comet, planetoid or dwarf planet? Does our Solar System have 8 planets or some other number? Even the count of planets in our Milky Way galaxy is at stake.

"Dawn arising." The latest image of Ceres - February 12, 2015 -  by the Dawn spacecraft from 80,000 km. With icy deposits pock marking its surface, a possible reservoir of water below its surface, is Ceres a planet, dwarf planet, an asteroid or all three? (Credit: NASA/Dawn)
“Dawn arising.” The latest image of Ceres – February 12, 2015 – by the Dawn spacecraft from 80,000 km. With icy deposits pock marking its surface, a possible reservoir of water below its surface, is Ceres a planet, dwarf planet, an asteroid or all three? (Credit: NASA/Dawn)

Not to dwell on the Harvard debate, let it be known that if given their way, the debates outcome would reset the Solar System to nine planets. For over eight years, the solar system has had eight planets. During the period  1807 to 1845, our Solar System had eleven planets. Neptune was discovered in 1846 and astronomers began to discover many more asteroids. They were eliminated from the club. This is very similar to what is now happening to Pluto-like objects – Plutoids. So from 1846 to 1930, there were 8 planets – the ones as defined today.

The discoverer of Pluto - Clyde Tombaugh in the 1930s and again with homebuilt telescope in the 1990s that earned him an assignment at Lowell Observatory - discover Planet X. Cremated remains of Clyde are attached to the New Horizons space probe now approaching the dwarf planet Pluto.
The discoverer of Pluto – Clyde Tombaugh in the 1930s and again with homebuilt telescope in the 1990s that earned him an assignment at Lowell Observatory – discover Planet X. The cremated remains of Clyde are attached to the New Horizons space probe that is now approaching the dwarf planet Pluto.

In 1930, a Kansas farm boy, Clyde Tombaugh, hired by Lowell Observatory discovered Pluto and for 76 years there were 9 planets. In the year 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) took up a debate using a “democratic process” to accept a new definition of planet, define a new type – dwarf planet and then set everything else as “Small Bodies.” If your head is spinning with planets, you are not alone.

All two body systems have a barycenter, the shared point in space around which they orbit. Pluto and Charon’s happens to be between both bodies due to their proximity and similar mass. (Credit: NASA/New Horizons)

Two NASA missions were launched immediately before and after the IAU announcement took affect. The Dawn mission suddenly was to be launched to an asteroid and a dwarf planet and the New Horizons had rather embarked on a nine year journey to a planet belittled to a dwarf planet – Pluto. Principal Investigator, Dr. Alan Stern was upset. Furthermore, from the discoveries of the Kuiper mission and other discoveries, we now know that there are hundreds of billions of planets in our Milky Way galaxy; possibly trillions. The present definition excludes hundreds of billions of bodies from planethood status.

The presently known largest trans-Neptunian objects (TSO) - are likely to be surpassed by future discoveries. Which of these trans-Neptunian objects (TSO) would you call planets and which "dwarf planets"? (Illustration Credit: Larry McNish, Data: M.Brown)
The presently known largest trans-Neptunian objects (TSO) – are likely to be surpassed by future discoveries. Which of these trans-Neptunian objects (TSO) would you call planets and which “dwarf planets”? (Illustration Credit: Larry McNish, Data: M.Brown)

There are two main camps with de facto leaders. One camp has Dr. Mike Brown of Caltech and the other, Dr. Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) as leading figures. A primary focus of Dr. Brown’s research is the study of trans-Neptunian objects while Dr. Sterns’s activities are many but specifically, the New Horizons mission which is 6 months away from its flyby of Pluto. Consider first the IAU Resolution 5A that its members approved:

(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) shape2, (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”.

This is our starting point – planet, dwarf planet, everything else. Consider “everything else”. This broad category includes meteoroids, asteroids, comets and planetesimals. Perhaps other small body types will arise as we look more closely at the Universe. Within the category, there is now a question of what is an asteroid and what is a comet. NASA’s flybys of comets and now ESA’s Rosetta at 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko are making the delineation between the two types difficult. The difference between a meteoroid and an asteroid is simply defined as less than or greater than one meter in size, respectively. So the Chelyabinsk event absolutely involved a small asteroid – about 20 meters in diameter. Planetesimals are small bodies in a solar nebula that are the building blocks of planets but they could lead to the creation of all the other types of small bodies.

Dr. Alan Stern, project scientist for New Horizons and Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss the New Horizons spacecraft in the mission operations center at JHU/APL. The interview was for a NOVA special (12/14/2011), the Pluto Files, about a Kansas farm boy, a missing planet and the 70 years of astronomical discoveries leading to the present day. (Credit: JHU/APL,PBS)
Dr. Alan Stern, project scientist for New Horizons and Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss the New Horizons spacecraft in the mission operations center at JHU/APL. The interview was for a NOVA special (12/14/2011), the Pluto Files, about a Kansas farm boy, a missing planet and the 70 years of astronomical discoveries leading to the present day. (Credit: JHU/APL,PBS)

Putting aside the question of “Small Bodies” and its sub-classes, what should be the definition of planet and dwarf planet? These are the two terms that demoted Pluto and raised Ceres to dwarf planet. It is also interesting to note how Resolution 5A is meant exclusively for our Solar System. In 2006, there were not thousands of exo-planets but just a few dozen extreme cases but nevertheless, the IAU did not choose to extend the definition to “stars” but rather just in reference to our pretty well known star, the Sun.

Recall Tim Allen’s movie, “The Santa Clause”. Clauses can cause a heap of trouble. The IAU has such a clause – Clause C which has caused much of the present controversy around the definition of planets. Clause (c) of Resolution 5A: “has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” This is the Pluto killer-clause which demoted it to dwarf planet status and reduced the number of planets in our solar system to eight. In a sense, the IAU chose to cauterize a wound, a weakness in the definitions, that if left unchanged, would have led to who knows how many planets in our Solar System.

The question of what is Pluto is open for public discussion so armed with enough knowledge to be dangerous, the following is my proposed alternative to the IAU’s that are arguably an improvement. The present challenge to Pluto’s status lies in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. Such belts or clouds are probably not uncommon throughout the galaxy. Plutoids are the 500 lb gorilla in the room.

Two spacecraft, Dawn and New Horizon will reach their final objectives in 2015 - Dwarf Planets - Ceres and Pluto. (Credit: NASA, Illustration - T.Reyes)
Two spacecraft, Dawn and New Horizon will reach their final objectives in 2015 – Dwarf Planets – Ceres and Pluto. (Credit: NASA, Illustration – T.Reyes)

This year, as touted by the likes of Planetary Society, Universe Today and elsewhere, is the year of the dwarf planet. How remarkable and surprising will the study of Ceres, Pluto and Charon by NASA spacecraft be? There is a strong possibility that after the celestial dust clears and data analysis is published, the IAU will take on the challenge again to better define what is a planet and everything else. It is impossible to imagine that the definitions can remain unchanged for long. Even now, there is sufficient information to independently assess the definitions and weigh in on the approaching debate. Anyone or any group – from grade schools to astronomical societies – can take on the challenge.

To encourage a debate and educate the public on the incredible universe that space probes and advanced telescopes are revealing, what follows is one proposed solution to what is a planet and everything else.

planet: is a celestial body that a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium – nearly round shape, b) has a differentiated interior as a result of its formation c) has insufficient mass to fuse hydrogen in its core, d) does not match the definition of a moon.

minor planet: is a planet with a mass less than one Pluto mass and does not match the definition of a moon.

inter-Stellar (minor) planet: is a (minor) planet that is not gravitationally bound to a stellar object.

binary (minor) planet: is a celestial body that is orbiting another (minor) planet for which the system’s barycenter resides above the surface of both bodies.

These definitions solve some hairy dilemmas. For one, planets orbit around the majority of most stars in the Universe, not just the Sun as Resolution 5A was only intended. Planets can also exist gravitationally not bound to a star –  the result of it own molecular cloud collapse without a star or expulsion from a stellar system. One could specify gravitational expulsion however, it is possible that explosive events occur that cause the disintegration of a star and its binding gravity or creates such an impulse that a planet is thrusted out of a stellar system. Having an atmosphere certainly doesn’t work. Astronomers are already anticipating Mars or Earth-sized objects deep in the Oort cloud that could have no atmosphere – frozen out and also despite their size, not be able to “clear their neighborhood.”

An animation (above) of Kepler mission planet candidates compiled by Jeff Thorpe. Kepler and other exoplanet projects are revealing that the properties of planets – orbits, size, temperature, makeup – are all extreme. Does Pluto represent one of those extremes – the smallest of planets? (Credit: NASA/Kepler, Jeff Thorp)

 

The need to create a lower-end limit to what is a planet reached a near fever pitch with the discovery of a Trans-Nepturnian Object (TNO) in 2005 that is bigger than Pluto – Eris.  Dr. Michael Brown of Caltech and his team led in the discovery of bright large KBOs. There was not just Eris but many of nearly the same size as Pluto. So without clause (c), one would be left with a definition for planet that could allow the count of planets in our Solar System to rise into the hundreds maybe even thousands. This would become a rather unmanageable problem; the number of planets rising year after year and never settled and with no means to make reasonable comparisons between planetary systems throughout our galaxy and even the Universe.

The book that tells the story of discovery - trans-Neptunian objects (TNO) that led to the downfall of Pluto from full planethood to that of a dwarf. The 2006 IAU decision was a pre-emptive strike to stave off a proliferation of planets in our system. It worked but "killed" Pluto. Did it have it coming? Dr. Brown also agrees that the present definition of planet is flawed and incomplete. (Photo Credits: Caltech/M.Brown)
The book that tells the story of discovery – trans-Neptunian objects (TNO) that led to the downfall of Pluto from full planethood to that of a dwarf. The 2006 IAU decision was a pre-emptive strike to stave off a proliferation of planets in our system. It worked but “killed” Pluto. Did it have it coming? Dr. Brown also agrees that the present definition of planet is flawed and incomplete. (Photo Credits: Caltech/M.Brown)

Two more celestial body types follow that are proposed to round out the set.

moon: is a celestial body that a) orbits a (minor) planet and b) for which the barycenter of its orbit is below the surface of its parent (minor) planet.

This creates the possibility of a planet-moon system such that its barycenter is above the surface of the larger body. Pluto and Charon are the most prominent case in our Solar System. In such cases, if one body meets the criteria of a (minor)planet, then the other body can also be assessed to determine if it is also a (minor) planet and the pair as binary (minor) planets. If the primary body was a minor planet, it is possible that the barycenter could be above its surface but the secondary body does not meet all the criteria of a minor planet, specifically “differentiated interior”.

The definition of moon is compounded by the existence of, for example, asteroids with moons. For such objects, the smaller object is defined as a satellite.

Satellite: is a celestial body that a) orbits another celestial body, b) whose parent body is not a (minor) planet.

Another permissible term is moonlet which could be used to describe both very small moons such as those found in the Jovian and Saturn systems or a small body orbiting an asteroid or comet. Moonlet could replace satellite.

The discriminator between planet and moon is not mass but simply whether the celestial body orbits a (minor) planet and the barycenter resides inside the larger body. The definition of moon excludes the possibility of a planet orbiting another planet except in the special case of binary (minor) planet.

Defining a lower size limit to “Planet” is necessary to compare stellar systems and classify. A limit based on the body’s average surface pressure and temperature or the surface gravity could define a limit. While they could, they are not practical because of the extremes and diverse combinations of conditions. Strange objects would fall through the cracks.

Removing clause (c) – “has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” – will avoid a future conflict such as a very low mass star with a plutoid-sized object or smaller, in a close orbit that has cleared its neighborhood.

Additionally, choosing to declare that Pluto becomes the “standard weight” that differentiates minor planet from planet sets a precedent. In an era in which computers measure and tally the state of our existence, setting this limit to include Pluto and return it as the ninth planet of our Solar System, is, in a small but significant way, a re-declaration of our humanity. Soon we will be challenged by artificial intelligence greater than ours; we are already have. Where will we stand our ground?

Forget about Pluto for a moment. Should Eris be our tenth Planet? Like Pluto it has a prominent moon- Dysnomia. Human perception and conceptions of the Universe have shaped our view of the Solar System. The Ptolemaic system (Earth centered), Kepler's Harmonic Spheres, even the fact that ten digits reside on our hands impact our impression of the Solar System (Photo Credits:NASA/ESA and M. Brown / Caltech)
Forget about Pluto for a moment. Should Eris be our tenth planet? Like Pluto it has a prominent moon- Dysnomia. Human perception and conceptions of the Universe have shaped our view of the Solar System. The Ptolemaic system (Earth centered), Kepler’s Harmonic Spheres, even the fact that ten digits reside on our hands impact our impression of the Solar System (Photo Credits:NASA/ESA and M. Brown / Caltech)

The consequences of this proposed set of definitions, makes Ceres a minor planet and no longer an asteroid. Many trans-Neptunian objects discovered in this century become minor planets. Of the known TNOs only Pluto and Eris meets the criteria of planet.The dwarf planet Eris would become the tenth planet. Makemake, Sedna, Quaoar, Orcus, Haumea would be minor planets. By keeping Pluto a planet and defining it as the standard bearer, only one new planet must be declared. Surely, more will be found, very distant, in odd elliptical and tilted orbits. The count of planets in our solar system could rise by 10, 20 maybe 50 and perhaps this would make the definition untenable but maybe not. So be it. New Horizons will fly by a dwarf planet in July but this should mark the beginning of the end of the present set of definitions.

Three perspectives of a ten planet Solar System. No longer Earth centered, or with harmonic spheres but now with planets outside the ecliptic plane and growing. How many planets would be too many? (Credits: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)
Three perspectives of a ten planet Solar System. No longer Earth centered, or with harmonic spheres but now with planets outside the ecliptic plane and growing. How many planets would be too many? (Credits: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)

This set of definitions defines a set of celestial bodies that consistently covers the spectrum of known bodies. There is the potential of exotic celestial objects that are spawned from cataclysmic events or from the unique conditions during the early epochs of the Universe or from remnants of old or dying stellar objects. Their discovery will likely trigger new or revised definitions but these definitions are a good working set for the time being. Ultimately, it is the decision of the IAU but the sharing of knowledge and the democratic processes that we cherish permits anyone to question and evaluate such definitions or proclamations.To all that share an interest in Pluto as or as not a planet raise your hand and be heard.

A video from 2014 by Kurz Gesagt describing the Pluto-Charon system. Is this a binary planet system or one of the “dwarf” variety?

Further Reading

Learn All About Pluto, The Most Famous Dwarf Planet, E. Howell, Universe Today, 1/17/2015

A synopsis of Pluto facts and figures at Universe Today, compendium of pages on Pluto

What is the Kuiper Belt?, video, Universe Today, 12/30/2013, Fraser Cain asks Mike Brown to explain the Kuiper Belt

Is The Moon A Planet?, E. Howell, Universe Today, 1/27/2015

It Looks Like These Are All the Bright Kuiper Belt Objects We’ll Ever FindUniverse Today, 1/12/2015

2015, NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet, Universe Today, 12/14/2014

A Serendipitous All Sky Survey For Bright Objects In The Outer Solar SystemCornell University Library, 1/5/2015

Ten Years of Eris, at Mike Brown’s Planets, 1/5/2015

My condolences to the friends and family of Tammy Plotner, the first regular contributing writer to Universe Today. Can’t we all relate to what drew Tammy to write about the Universe? She wrote outstanding articles for U.T.

me_and_the_dob

It Looks Like These Are All the Bright Kuiper Belt Objects We’ll Ever Find

The self-professed “Pluto Killer” is at it again. Dr. Michael Brown is now reminiscing about the good old days when one could scour through sky survey data and discover big bright objects in the Kuiper Belt. In his latest research paper, Brown and his team have concluded that those days are over.

Ten years ago, Brown discovered what is now known as the biggest Kuiper Belt object – Eris. Brown’s team found others that rivaled Pluto in size and altogether, these discoveries led to the demotion of Pluto to dwarf planet. Now, using yet another sky survey data set but with new computer software, Brown says that its time to move on.

Instigators of the big heist - David Rabinowitz, Brown and Chad Trujillo, left to right. The researchers discovered dozens of Kuiper Belt objects (KBO) including six of the eight largest KBOs including the largest, Eris.
Instigators of the big heist – Rabinowitz, Brown and Trujillo, left to right. The researchers co-discovered dozens of Kuiper Belt objects (KBO) including nine of the ten largest KBOs including the largest, Eris.

Like the famous Bugs Bunny cartoon, its no longer Rabbit Season or Duck Season and as Bugs exclaims to Elmer Fudd, there is no more bullets. Analyzing seven years worth of data, Brown and his team has concluded we are fresh out of Pluto or Charon-sized objects to be discovered in the Kuiper Belt. But for Dr. Brown, perhaps it now might be Oort Cloud season.

His latest paper, A Serendipitous All Sky Survey For Bright Objects In The Outer Solar System, in pre-print, describes the completion of analysis of two past sky surveys covering the northern and southern hemisphere down to 20 degrees in Galactic latitude. Using revised computer software, his team scoured through the data sets from the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) and the Siding Spring Survey (SSS). The surveys are called “fast cadence surveys” and they primarily search for asteroids near Earth and out to the asteroid belt. Instead Brown’s team used the data to look at image frames spaced days and months apart.

Update: In a Twitter communique, Dr. Brown stated, “I would say we’re out of BRIGHT ones, not big ones. Could be big ones lurking far away!” His latest work involved a southern sky survey (SSS) to about magnitude 19 and the northern survey (CSS) to 21. Low albedo (dark) and more distant KBOs might be lurking beyond the detectability of these surveys that are in the range of Charon to Pluto in size.

Animation showing the movement of Eris on the images used to discover it. Eris is indicated by the arrow. The three frames were taken over a period of three hours. (Credit: Brown, et al.)
Animation showing the movement of Eris on the images used to discover it. Eris is indicated by the arrow. The three frames were taken over a period of three hours. More images over several weeks were necessary to determine its orbit.(Credit: Brown, et al.)

Objects at Kuiper Belt distances move very slowly. For example, Pluto orbits the Sun at about 17,000 km/hr (11,000 mph), taking 250 years to complete one orbit. These are speeds that are insufficient to maintain ven a low-Earth orbit. Comparing two image frames spaced just hours apart will find nearby asteroids moving relative to the star fields but not Kuiper belt objects. So using image frames spaced days, weeks or even months apart, they searched again. Their conclusion is that all the big Kuiper belt objects have been found.

The only possibility of finding another large KBO lies in a search of the galactic plane which is difficult due to the density of Milky Way’s stars in the field of view. The vast number of small bodies in the Kuiper belt and Oort Cloud lends itself readily to statistical analysis. Brown states that there is a 32% chance of finding another Pluto-sized object hiding among the stars of the Milky Way.

Artists concept of the view from Eris with Dysnomia  in the background, looking back towards the distant sun. Credit: Robert Hurt (IPAC)
Artists concept of the view from Eris with Dysnomia in the background, looking back towards the distant sun. Credit: Robert Hurt (IPAC)

Dr. Brown also released a blog story in celebration of the discovery of the largest of the Kuiper Belt objects, Eris, ten years ago last week. Ten years of Eris, reminisces about the great slew of small body discoveries by Dr. Brown, Dr. Chad Trujillo of Gemini Observatory and Dr. David Rabinowitz of Yale Observatory.

Brown encourages others to take up this final search right in the galactic plane but apparently his own intentions are to move on. What remains to be seen — that is, to be discovered — are hundreds of large “small” bodies residing in the much larger region of the Oort Cloud. These objects are distributed more uniformly throughout the whole spherical region that the Cloud defines around the Sun.

Furthermore, Dr. Brown maintains that there is a good likelihood that a Mars or Earth-sized object exists in the Oort Cloud.

Small bodies within our Solar System along with exo-planets are perhaps the hottest topics and focuses of study in Planetary Science at the moment. Many graduate students and seasoned researchers alike are gravitating to their study. There are certainly many smaller Kuiper belt objects remaining to be found but more importantly, a better understanding of their makeup and origin are yet to be revealed.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at the protoplanet Ceres Illustration of Dawn's approach phase and RC3 orbit This artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn  spacecraft shows the craft orbiting high above Ceres, where the craft will arrive in early 2015 to begin science investigations. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of the Dawn spacecraft at the protoplanet Ceres Illustration of Dawn’s approach phase and RC3 orbit This artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows the craft orbiting high above Ceres, where the craft will arrive in early 2015 to begin science investigations. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Presently, the Dawn spacecraft is making final approach to the dwarf planet Ceres in the Asteroid belt. The first close up images of Ceres are only a few days away as Dawn is now just a couple of 100 thousand miles away approaching at a modest speed. And much farther from our home planet, scientists led by Dr. Alan Stern of SWRI are on final approach to the dwarf planet Pluto with their space probe, New Horizons. The Pluto system is now touted as a binary dwarf planet. Pluto and its moon Charon orbit a common point (barycenter) in space that lies between Pluto and Charon.

So Dr. Brown and team exits stage left. No more dwarf planets – at least not soon and not in the Kuiper belt. Will that upstage what is being called the year of the Dwarf Planet?

But next up for close inspection for the first time are Ceres, Pluto and Charon. It should be a great year.

The relative sizes of the inner Solar System, Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. (Credit: NASA, William Crochot)
The relative sizes of the inner Solar System, Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. (Credit: NASA, William Crochot)

References:

A Serendipitous All Sky Survey For Bright Objects In The Outer Solar System

Ten Years of Eris

2015, NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet, Universe Today

What is the Kuiper Belt?, Universe Today

2015: NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet

Together, the space probes Dawn and New Horizons have been in flight for a collective 17 years. One remained close to home and the other departed to parts of the Solar System of which little is known. They now share a common destination in the same year: dwarf planets.

At the time of these NASA probes’ departures, Ceres had just lost its designation as the largest asteroid in our Solar System. Pluto was the ninth planet. Both probes now stand to deliver measures of new data and insight that could spearhead yet another revision of the definition of planet.

A comparison of the trajectories of New Horizon (left) and the Dawn missions (right). (Credit: NASA/JPL, SWRI, Composite- T.Reyes)
A comparison of the trajectories of New Horizons (left) and the Dawn missions (right). (Credit: NASA/JPL, SWRI, Composite- T.Reyes)

Certainly, NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet is an unofficial designation and NASA representatives would be quick to emphasize another dozen or more missions that are of importance during the year 2015. However, these two missions could determine the fate of billions or more small bodies just within our galaxy, the Milky Way.

If Ceres and Pluto are studied up close – mission success is never a sure thing – then what is observed could lead to a new, more certain and accepted definition of planet, dwarf planet, and possibly other new definitions.

The New Horizons mission became the first mission of NASA’s New Frontiers program, beginning development in 2001. The probe was launched on January 19, 2006, atop an Atlas V 551 (5 solid rocket boosters plus a third stage). Utilizing more compact and lightweight electronics than its predecessors to the outer planets – Pioneer 10 & 11, and Voyager 1 & 2 – the combination of reduced weight, a powerful launch vehicle, plus a gravity assist from Jupiter has lead to a nine year journey. On December 6, 2014, New Horizons was taken out of hibernation for the last time and now remains powered on until the Pluto encounter.

This "movie" of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon b yNASA's New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter -center of mass of the two bodies - resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto's surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
This “movie” of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter – the center of mass of the two bodies – resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The arrival date of New Horizon is July 14, 2015. A telescope called the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has permitted the commencement of observations while still over 240 million kilometers (150 million miles) from Pluto. The first stellar-like images were taken while still in the Asteroid belt in 2006.

Pluto was once the ninth planet of the Solar System. From its discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh until 2006, it maintained this status. In that latter year, the International Astronomical Union undertook a debate and then a membership vote that redefined what a planet is. The change occurred 8 months after New Horizons’ launch. There were some upset mission scientists, foremost of which was the principal investigator, Dr. Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. In a sense, the rug had been pulled from under them.

A gentleman’s battle ensued between opposing protagonists Dr. Stern and Dr. Michael Brown from Caltech. In 2001, Dr. Brown’s research team began to discover Kuiper belt objects (Trans-Neptunian objects) that rivaled the size of Pluto. Pluto suddenly appeared to be one of many small bodies that could likely number in the trillions within just one galaxy – ours. According to Dr. Brown, there could be as many as 200 objects in our Solar System similar to Pluto that, under the old definition, could be defined as planets. Dr. Brown’s work was the straw that broke the camel’s back – that is, it led to the redefinition of planet, and the native of Huntsville, Alabama, went on to write a popular book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

Dr. Stern’s story involving Pluto and planetary research is a longer and more circuitous one. Stern was the Executive Director of the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division and then accepted the position of Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in 2007. Clearly, after a nine year journey, Stern is now fully committed to New Horizons’ close encounter. More descriptions of the two protagonists of the Pluto debate will be included in a follow on story.

Artist’s concept depicting the Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it travels from Vesta (lower right) to Ceres (upper left). The galaxies in the background are part of the Virgo supercluster. Dawn, Vesta and Ceres are currently in the constellation Virgo from the perspective of viewers on Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)
Artist’s concept depicting the Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it travels from Vesta (lower right) to Ceres (upper left). The galaxies in the background are part of the Virgo supercluster. Dawn, Vesta, and Ceres are currently in the constellation Virgo from the perspective of viewers on Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

The JPL and Orbital Science Corporation developed Dawn space probe began its journey to the main asteroid belt on September 27, 2007. It has used gravity assists and flew by the planet Mars. Dawn spent 14 months surveying Vesta, the 4th largest asteroid of the main belt (assuming Ceres is still considered the largest). While New Horizons has traveled over 30 Astronomical Units (A.U.) – 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun – Dawn has remained closer and required reaching a little over 2 A.U. to reach Vesta and now 3 A.U. to reach Ceres.

The Dawn mission had the clear objective of rendezvous and achieving orbit with two asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn was also sent packing the next generation of Ion Propulsion. It has proven its effectiveness very well, having used ion propulsion for the first time to achieve an orbit. Pretty simple, right? Not so fast.

As Dawn was passing critical design reviews during development, the redefinition of planet lofted its second objective – the asteroid 1 Ceres – to a new status. While Pluto was demoted, Ceres was promoted from its scrappy status of biggest of the asteroids – the debris, the leftovers of our solar system’s development – to dwarf planet. Even 4 Vesta is now designated a proto-planet.

Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

So now the stage is set. Dawn will arrive first at a dwarf planet – Ceres – in April. With a small, low gravity body and ion propulsion, the arrival is slow and cautious. If the two missions fair well and achieve their goals, 2015 is likely to become a pivotal year in the debate over the classification of non-stellar objects throughout the universe.

Just days ago, at the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco, Dr. Stern and team described the status and more details of the goals of New Horizons. Since arriving, more moons of Pluto have been discovered. There is the potential that faint rings exist and Pluto may even harbor an interior ocean due to the tidal forces from its largest moon, Charon. And Dawn mission scientists have seen the prospects for Ceres’ change. Not just the status, the latest Hubble images of Ceres is showing bright spots which could be water ice deposits and could also harbor an internal ocean.

The Solar System is becoming a more crowded place. This picture shows the sizes of dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Makemake as compared to Earth and Earth's Moon, here called "Luna." None of the distances between objects are to scale. (Credit: NASA)
The Solar System is becoming a more crowded place. This picture shows the sizes of dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Makemake as compared to Earth and Earth’s Moon, here called “Luna.” None of the distances between objects are to scale. (Credit: NASA)

So other NASA missions notwithstanding, this is the year of the dwarf planet. NASA will provide Humanity with its first close encounters with the most numerous of small round – by their self-gravity – bodies in the Universe. They are now called dwarf planets but ask Dr. Stern and company, the public, and many other planetary scientists and you will discover that the jury is still out.

References:

JHU/APL New Horizons Mission Home Page

NASA Dawn Mission Home Page

Related Universe Today articles:

NASA’s New Horizons

NASA’s Dawn Mission