The Perception of Pluto

Categories: Outer solar system
In this artist’s concept, Pluto and its moon Charon are seen from the surface of one of Pluto’s other satellites.
Credit: David A. Aguilar of the Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute, says that if a non-stellar object is massive enough to be round and orbits a star, it ought to be a planet. The key here is that once an object gets that big, important geophysical processes begin.

Under this scenario, the smallest known planet in the solar system would be Ceres, the largest and most massive object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres is less than half the diameter of Pluto.

By round, Sykes doesn’t mean perfectly spherical. In scientific terms, he’s talking about the shape of bodies that are in "hydrostatic equilibrium," where the pressure from an essentially fluid interior is balanced against gravity and centrifugal force at the body’s surface to round the object. This makes planetary objects fundamentally different from small, irregularly shaped asteroids and comets.

Sykes is talking about planets across the universe in general, about Pluto and other small planets in particular, and about planets in the distant reaches of our solar system yet to be discovered. Some of those could even be as large as the Earth, he said.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union devised new classifications for solar system objects and proclaimed there are only eight planets in our solar system — excluding several, including Pluto, and effectively slamming the door on future discoveries of planets beyond Neptune.

But Sykes and many other planetary scientists disagree with the IAU.

On Thursday August 14, Sykes and astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, of the American Museum of Natural History and host of NOVA Science Now, debated the IAU’s actions, the value of different planet definitions, and the place for Pluto and other objects in the solar system. They met as a part of the three-day "Great Planet Debate: Science as a Process" conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory near Columbia, Maryland.

Despite the debate, Sykes says Pluto isn’t the real issue. The public’s perception and understanding of science is far more important.

"The IAU damaged the public perception of science by the high-profile spectacle of imposing, by vote, a controversial definition of a commonly used term," Sykes said. "Too often, science is presented as lists of facts to be learned from authority, instead of the dynamic open-ended process that it really is. The IAU reinforced this misconception of science".

"The importance of the ongoing debate is that it provides an opportunity to show the public how science really works in an area of great interest," he added.

Artist’s conception of eight dwarf planets. No clear and detailed photographs have yet been made of these objects.

Although Neil Tyson and Mark Sykes disagree on how to classify Pluto and other bodies in the solar system, "there are also many areas on which we will agree," Sykes said. "I’m hoping our debate will give the public a better understanding of why these differing views on planets serve the different purposes of various kinds of scientists, and will illuminate the extent to which those purposes are narrow or broad.

Shortly after the IAU issued its rules for defining planets, Sykes, along with another planetary scientist, Alan Stern, former associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, wrote a protest petition that was subsequently signed by hundreds of scientists who disagreed with the IAU action. "This was comparable to or more than the number who voted in favor of the IAU’s planet definition in 2006," Sykes said.

Apart from requiring that a planet orbit the sun (neglecting planets orbiting other stars), the sole operational requirement of the IAU definition is that a planet has cleared its orbit over the age of the solar system, Sykes said.

"The public and even many scientists are confused about what this means, and wonder if asteroids crossing the orbits of Earth and even Jupiter compromise their planetary status because these are objects that have not been cleared from their orbits," Sykes added.

In order to clear its orbit, an object needs to be more and more massive the farther it is from the Sun. "If Pluto were half the mass of Uranus, it would still not be a planet!" Sykes said. "And if the Earth traded places with Jupiter, Earth would not be a planet. It’s like saying a fruit becomes a vegetable if you move it to the other side of the table." Uranus is about 14.5 times as massive as Earth, while Pluto is about two-thousandths the mass of Earth.

"The IAU definition, better worded, may be useful for identifying those objects that gravitationally dominate their vicinity, or perhaps those objects that managed to sweep up most of the mass of the primordial disk of the solar system, but it does not help us understand which objects orbiting the Sun should have similar physical characteristics," said Sykes. "And it is those physical characteristics that we go to study with spacecraft."

The solar system today. Pluto was recently re-classified to join the ranks of dwarf planets like Ceres. Now, our solar system officially consists of 8 planets, shown in order from Mercury to Neptune.

The difference in viewpoints partly stems from the way planetary science research has evolved since robotic exploration of the solar system began more than 40 years ago, he noted.

"When I first started in this business, a large fraction of planetary scientists were astronomers who had cut their teeth on Earth-based telescopes," Sykes said. "Since then, we’ve been flooded with data coming back from close flybys, orbiters, landers and rovers. Most of the planetary science questions being asked today are geophysical and geological. Planetary science is merging with terrestrial science to become real comparative planetology. Only a small fraction of the planetary science community belongs to the IAU anymore."

"For planetary scientists, it makes more sense to have a planet definition that is motivated by the physical characteristics of the objects," Sykes added.

While the IAU grants planetary status to both Earth and a huge gas ball like Jupiter, Sykes said Earth actually has much more in common with Ceres and Pluto.

"Jupiter doesn’t have a surface," Sykes said. "It has no geology, and in fact Jupiter may have more in common with sub-stellar brown dwarfs than Earth. By comparison, I expect that when NASA’s Dawn mission reaches Ceres in 2015 we will see very interesting geology and possible evidence for a subsurface ocean. The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed Ceres to be unique in the asteroid belt, having round shape and a very smooth surface, likely as a consequence of its icy mantle. Likewise, Pluto will be visited by NASA’s New Horizons mission in 2015 to study its geology and atmosphere."

Under the planet definition supported by Sykes, our solar system would have 13 planets, although more might be found in the future beyond the orbit of Pluto. They are: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon, Eris, and recently discovered Makemake. Pluto and Charon would be considered a "double planet" because they both satisfy the criterion for being massive enough to be round, and orbit about a point in space between them as they orbit the Sun.

"It’s good for people to know that debate in science is the norm," Sykes said. "Science is dynamic. Science is argumentative. Science is continual testing and challenging. Science is not about something everyone has to memorize because some organization has given it its blessing."

"At the end of the day, scientific debate is a tool we use to increase our knowledge and understanding. It is also fun," Sykes added.

Related Web Sites

Astrobiology Roadmap Goal 1: Habitable Planets
Renaming Pluto
Tenth Planet
Charon’s Occulation
Fire and Ice
Great Debate Series at