Monday, June 07, 2010

Pluto, Like A Disco Ball, Only Smaller

For some unknown reason I've had two conversations recently where I've found myself not so calmly telling someone, "Pluto is too still a planet, damn it! I'll look it up and show you!"

When the diminutive Pluto was punched in the orbit and downgraded to ice-ball a few years ago it made the front page. News that some big astronomy nerdfest decided it was a"dwarf planet," not so much.

The only reason I care is because I invested an hour of my life a few months ago watching a NOVA special on the rise and fall of Pluto. My favorite part was the hate mail from 3rd graders that Pluto downgrader Neil deGrasse Tyson received after saying Pluto was just an icy comet thingy.

Why, because it's small?! You jerk! Pluto was my favorite planet, now what?! What about the people who live on Pluto? Now they don't exist!

Pluto, still a planet. Kinda. Mostly. It's dwarf planet. Disagree with me and thousands of third graders at your own peril.

Speaking of planets, my scooter riding pal Dean works at the Cincinnati Observatory as the outreach astronomer. A few years ago he rigged up the ancient, giant telescope at the Observatory - which is a million ways badass, btw - and showed me Saturn through the lens. It's underwhelming in the sense that it's not like what you see in books or on TV. It's not giant, in your face, "I am Saturn See-My-Rings!" It's just tiny and ringed, but it's right there, and I was looking at it, and therefore it was cool as hell.

But if you want to see a photo of the giant version, and why wouldn't you want to sit in awe of this wonder of the solar system, then check out these amazing photos taken by the school-bus-sized spacecraft, Cassini. And if you don't already check in on the Boston Globe's Big Picture blog, you should. It's great stuff.


Kelly said...

I was pretty thrilled when they declared Pluto not-a-planet. Ever since I took Astronomy for English Majors back in college, I've thought that glorified ice cube was nothing but a poser. Now you're telling me it's a planet again? Way to bow to peer pressure, Science.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson rocks my world, BTdubs.

Gina said...

I thought of you as I was writing this. I remembered your "Suck it, Pluto" headline. Hilarious, even Pluto deserves better.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

You're right. Pluto IS still a planet. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists favor a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they attain a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto meets this criterion and is therefore a planet. Under this definition, our solar system has 13 planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.