Friday, February 27, 2009

Closest dwarf planet is a lot closer than you think

Think Pluto is the closest dwarf planet to Earth? Pound360 did. We were wrong. It's a planetoid called Ceres, and its part of the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Remember that name. "Ceres."

The fact that there's a dwarf planet on the outer rim of the inner Solar System is one of a half-dozen-or-so fascinating things pointed out by the always-spectacular astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson (pictured upper right) when
he visited NPR's Science Friday recently. Also…
  • If Pluto were orbiting closer to the sun, say around Earth's orbit, it would have a tail... just like a comet.
  • 2012 apocalypse anxieties? Worried about the fact that the Earth, the Sun and the center of the galaxy will be lined up on December 21st, 2012? Terrified that this alignment may disrupt our planet's rotation? Don’t. This alignment actually happens every year. On December 21st. And it hasn't wiped us out yet.
  • On space exploration: Nothing can inspire us to "dream about tomorrow" like sending men and women deep into space. We learned that in the 1960s. "And I want to live in a country where tomorrow is just as much on the plate as today," said Tyson.
Also, regarding Pluto's demotion from planet to dwarf plant (which Tyson played a central role in), the astronomer swears the one-time Ninth Planet has nothing to worry about.

Tyson explained in the early 1800s, when asteroids were first discovered, they were classified as planets. Quickly, the number of planets spiraled "into the teens" until "clearer heads prevailed." The same thing happened with dwarf planets in the late nineties. So Pluto should find some comfort in the fact that it's "the first object of a new swath of real estate that exists in the outer Solar System."

Hmm. If Pound360 were Pluto, we'd still be pretty bummed out. Who remembers what the first asteroid was called?
Well, after reading this post, you should know. It's the closest dwarf planet to Earth, Ceres;
discovered on Jauary 1st, 1801 by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi. Here's an artists' conception of the (never-made-it-off-the-drawing-board) "Pluto Express" flying past the planetoid and its moon, Charon…


Oh, in case you're worried about whether or not we'll ever explore Pluto, Express was replaced by the New Horizons mission, launched in 2006, which is scheduled for a flyby on July 14, 2015. Let's hope we're still here to see that. Pound360 personally can't wait to see high-res images of Pluto.

Also, based on the comment below, Pound360 recommends you check out Laurel's Pluto blog... clearly the debate over Pluto's status rages on... and rightfully so... more in the comment string...

(image by
NASA)

33 comments:

Laurel Kornfeld said...

Tyson is wrong about Pluto on several counts. First, it is not a "former planet." Only four percent of the IAU voted on the demotion, and most were not planetary scientists. Hundreds of professional astronomers immediately rejected their decision in a petition led by New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. This debate is still ongoing, not settled as Tyson seems to indicate.

Interestingly, Tyson denies playing a "major role" in the demotion of Pluto, as he describes the IAU vote as "flawed" and disavows any connection to it.

The issue of Pluto growing a tail if it were closer to the sun is only part of the story. Every planet, if brought close enough to the sun, would grow a tail due to sublimation of its atmosphere. Pluto is 30 times further than the sun that is Earth. If Earth were brought 30 times closer to the sun than it is currently, it would grow a tail too.

Why do "clearer heads" correspond with artificially limiting the number of planets in the solar system? If we have 200 planets, then that is what we have. Tyson ignores the fact that Pluto is significantly different from most of its fellow Kuiper Belt Objects in this "new swarth of real estate" because it is in a state of hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning it is large enough to be pulled into a spherical shape by its own gravity, unlike most KBOs. This is a characteristic of planets, not of asteroids. Pluto actually has far more in common with the larger planets than with shapeless, intert KBOs.

Many astronomers favor an alternate planet definition stating that a planet is any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star. By that far superior definition, our solar system has 13 planets, of which Pluto is the tenth. There is no need to seek "comfort." Instead, join the scientists and lay people working to overturn the wrongful demotion, restore Pluto's planet status, and establish dwarf planets as a subcategory of planet. For contact information to email the IAU and its president, asking that they reopen this issue, visit http://www.dwarfplanetsrplanets2.com and my Pluto blog at http://laurele.livejournal.com

pound360 said...

Hi Ms Kornfeld. Thanks for the comment.

Great stuff.

And we checked out your blog (http://laurele.livejournal.com/), where it's clear the debate over Pluto's classification is alive and well. Pound360 admits we thought it was dead. But for what it's worth, we wouldn't suggest that you "get over it" (as one rather respectable person said).

In fact, Pound360 says keep that fight alive! This is what makes science great. Debate. It forces all of us to tighten our arguments.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

Thank you for posting the link. One correction: the date of New Horizons flyby of Pluto is July 14, 2015, not January 19. January 19, 2006 is the day New Horizons was launched.

pound360 said...

Thanks Laurel... good catch... fixed!

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Pound360 Archive

About Me

My photo
I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.