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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2836

Romanticizing a Celestial Minnow – Pluto

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

With the fly-by carried out by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on Tuesday, both astronomers and space enthusiasts have started talking about the Pluto, which lost its planetary status in somewhat controversial manner in 2006 – not in space, but in Prague, Czech Republic, here on planet Earth.

With the fly-by carried out by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on Tuesday, both astronomers and space enthusiasts have started talking about the Pluto, which lost its planetary status in somewhat controversial manner in 2006 – not in space, but in Prague, Czech Republic, here on planet Earth.

The vote, taken in 2006 involving just 424 members from the 10,000-strong IAU – International Astronomical Union, was not unanimous: far from it; it was 276 /148. Pluto was demoted to the status of ‘dwarf planet’.

Pluto loyalists, however, have since been fighting for the restoration of its status; they involve people from all walks of life, including well-known astronomers. They got the much needed boost this week on a mythical note.

The first close-up taken by New Horizons on its way to perform the fly-by near the Pluto showed a significant, heart-shaped region on the surface last week. The enthusiasm has been steadily building up since, up until Tuesday, when the spacecraft managed to perform long-awaited fly-by in order to get the closest ever look at the surface of the dwarf planet.

The High-definition photographs published by NASA were truly amazing, indeed, given the distance involved – a staggering 7.5 billion kilometres from the Earth. They show the existence of very high icy mountains on its terrain.
The spacecraft is now on its way to reach its next goal, Kuiper belt, which consists of debris of icy rocks. Its aim is to study two relatively large objects, known as MT69 and MT70, provided it has enough fuel to make it and complete the precarious journey without colliding with moving debris in the region.

In the following animation that I created with an initial delay, the fly-by mileposts of New Horizons, are shown since its launch in 2006: in 2007, it did a similar fly-by near the Jupiter; on Tuesday 14, 2015, it completed the fly-by around the Pluto. In 2016, it is expected to enter the Kuiper belt, depending on the level of fuel and robustness of the spacecraft in the presence of the natural space debris.

“Pluto”

Here on the planet Earth, meanwhile, campaign for restoration of Pluto’s planetary status shows no sign of abating. On the contrary, it is getting serious and sensationalized and on its way to reach the critical mass – if it hasn’t done so far.

I carried out an interactive survey in a Google science community, of which I am an active member, in this regard: on the first day, 600 people voted; it was 53% in favour of the restoration. Even Time magazine reported a similar trend. When a member stated that a vote couldn’t change the status of a celestial object, I reminded him of the fact that the Pluto lost its status in a vote too, in the first place! – in a lighter vein, of course, to highlight the need of a gesture of reciprocity.

Pluto’s controversial demotion was hastened with the discovery of a celestial object larger than the former in 2003.

In the light of the new discovery by the Hubble telescope, the astronomers did face with an issue: if the Pluto were to remain a planet, then the classification would have to be extended to new discoveries too, leading to an explosion of planets in proportion to the advancement of space technology.

The discovery of a second larger object than the Pluto within our Solar System, little later, became the last straw.

The demotion of the Pluto gathered momentum among both laymen and astronomers alike, up until it reached an unceremonious peak in 2006.

In order to do it, the astronomers in question redefined a planet; the definition, loosely accepted until then, was more of a cultural one that stems from the Greek word, ‘wanderer’ rather than that of scientific. The new definition of a planet is as follows:

Here on the planet Earth, meanwhile, campaign for restoration of Pluto’s planetary status shows no sign of abating. On the contrary, it is getting serious and sensationalized and on its way to reach the critical mass – if it hasn’t done so far.

I carried out an interactive survey in a Google science community, of which I am an active member, in this regard: on the first day, 600 people voted; it was 53% in favour of the restoration. Even Time magazine reported a similar trend. When a member stated that a vote couldn’t change the status of a celestial object, I reminded him of the fact that the Pluto lost its status in a vote too, in the first place! – in a lighter vein, of course, to highlight the need of a gesture of reciprocity.

Pluto’s controversial demotion was hastened with the discovery of a celestial object larger than the former in 2003.

In the light of the new discovery by the Hubble telescope, the astronomers did face with an issue: if the Pluto were to remain a planet, then the classification would have to be extended to new discoveries too, leading to an explosion of planets in proportion to the advancement of space technology.

The discovery of a second larger object than the Pluto within our Solar System, little later, became the last straw. The demotion of the Pluto gathered momentum among both laymen and astronomers alike, up until it reached an unceremonious peak in 2006.

In order to do it, the astronomers in question redefined a planet; the definition, loosely accepted until then, was more of a cultural one that stems from the Greek word, ‘wanderer’ rather than that of scientific. The new definition of a planet is as follows:

  • It must orbit a star – Pluto does that;
  • It must be spherical in shape – Pluto really is
  • It must clear the path around its orbit – Pluto failed at the farthest end of its orbit, as shown in the animation

The new definition, however, opened the floodgates of new criticisms, instead of calming down the situation. As an inevitable result, Prof Mike Brown, who was instrumental in discovering new dwarf planets – and in demotion too – was dubbed Pluto Killer by Pluto fans. The critics started accusing the demotion-camp of redefining a planet with the goal of Pluto’s fate in their sight.

Whatever the definition, pro-planet camp is getting strong by the day. It can only get stronger when NASA start publishing more breathtakingly-beautiful photos of the celestial minnow.

The demotion of Pluto from its planetary status created an unwarranted problem for ordinary folks too, who used to have a simple mnemonic to remember the planets in order - My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies.

Since demotion, not only did the new mnemonic get shorter, but also saw a culinary substitute in it:

My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Noodles – aptly reflecting the messy aftermath of redefining things that have been in existence for ages.

- Asian Tribune -

Romanticizing a Celestial Minnow – Pluto
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