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And Then There Was 8

August 24, 2006

New Solar System

How many planets are there in our solar system? 9? There was yesterday, but today we lost a planet. Not by some cataclysmic asteroid impact or problem with the Hubble space telescope, but how most things in this world are decided – by committee.

” Astronomers have voted to strip Pluto of its status as a planet.

About 2,500 scientists meeting in Prague have adopted historic new guidelines that see the small, distant world demoted to a secondary category.

The researchers said Pluto failed to dominate its orbit around the Sun in the same way as the other planets.

The International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) decision means textbooks will now have to describe a Solar System with just eight major planetary bodies.

Pluto, which was discovered in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh, will be referred to as a ‘dwarf planet’. “

What prompted this not so spontaneous gathering of intergalactic brain power to do what many politicians would love to be able to achieve, and erase a piece of history?

The need to be able to define what is, and what isn’t, a planet is apparently a contentious issue since astronomers keep discovering large celestial objects on the edge of our solar system, although I’m pretty sure any 8 year old could give you more of a comprehendible explanation of what a planet is than any herd of scientists. “It’s a big lump of rock and stuff that goes round the sun.”

Exactly. They’re bigger than moons, are named after Roman or Greek gods and have more gas than Jerry Springer, Trisha Goddard, Tony Blair, the entire Conservative party and a exceedingly large herd of cows, combined.

But scientists – like everything other profession ending in ‘ists’ – like to be able to define and pigeon-hole things, so they wanted to quantify exactly how many John Prescott meat pies they are in mass, how many George Bush’s ego’s in terms of size, and how many pharmaceutically enhanced sprinters coached by Trevor Graham they are in terms of speed of orbit round the Sun.

The scientists agreed that for a celestial body to qualify as a planet:

* it must be in orbit around the Sun
* it must be large enough that it takes on a nearly round shape
* it has cleared its orbit of other objects

This automatically disqualified Pluto because its elliptical orbit overlaps with that of Neptune, so it has been relegated to the social outcast category of dwarf planets. This means it will have to accept being picked on in school by fat bullies on a fast track to heart disease and a collection of ASBOs, and will have to endure the ‘hilarious’ questions about whether Snow White was it’s mother.

It’s hard being a dwarf planet.

At least Pluto has some company, in the form of a asteroid with an attitude called ‘Ceres’ and a ‘scattered dick object’ with the catchy name of 2003 UB313. 2003 UB313 is also known as ‘Xena’, presumably because it’s mass is unknown, although it could be because it was first discovered by a leather clad, high kicking, ass-whupping female. Maybe not.

There are a number of other celestial rejects which may or may not be allowed into the ‘special class’ in the future, most of which have similarly exciting names like 2002 UX25, although some kids might be surprised to learn that the Easterbunny and Santa are not just real, they are lumps of icy rock whizzing round the sun at millions of miles per hour.

Makes you wonder what kind of asteroid the reindeer are, and where in the universe Santa buys his Christmas presents…

~ TranceFixed

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