||[Aug. 24th, 2006|09:10 am]
Pluto gets the boot
Pluto no longer a planet, say astronomers
PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) -- Leading astronomers declared Thursday that Pluto is no longer a planet under historic new guidelines that downsize the solar system from nine planets to eight.
After a tumultuous week of clashing over the essence of the cosmos, the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of the planetary status it has held since its discovery in 1930.
The new definition of what is -- and isn't -- a planet fills a centuries-old black hole for scientists who have labored since Copernicus without one.
Pluto is no stranger to controversy. In fact, it's been dogged by disputes ever since its discovery.
Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh of Arizona's Lowell Observatory, Pluto was classified as a planet because scientists initially believed it was the same size as Earth. It remained one because for years, it was the only known object in the Kuiper Belt, an enigmatic zone beyond Neptune that's teeming with comets and other planetary objects.
Pluto got an ego boost in 1978 when it was found to have a moon that was later named Charon. The Hubble turned up two more, which this past June were christened Nix and Hydra.
But in the 1990s, more powerful telescopes revealed numerous bodies similar to Pluto in the neighborhood. New observations also showed that Pluto's orbit was oblong, sending it soaring well above and beyond the main plane of the solar system where Earth and the other seven planets circle the sun.
That prompted some galactic grumbling from astronomers who began openly attacking Pluto's planethood.
At one point, things looked so bad for Pluto, the international union said publicly in 1999 that rumors of Pluto's imminent demise were greatly exaggerated and there were no plans to kick it out of the cosmic club.
A year later, the Hayden Planetarium at New York's American Museum of Natural History was accused of snubbing Pluto by excluding it from a solar system exhibition.
Pluto took another hit after Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology discovered 2003 UB313, a slightly larger Kuiper Belt object. What's the point, some astronomers wondered, in keeping Pluto as a planet?
Its future brightened earlier this year, when NASA sent the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto to get a closer look at the ball of rock and ice. The Hubble has managed to glimpse only its most prominent surface features; New Horizons, if all goes well, will arrive in 2015.
Astronomy is a favorite subject of mine...it's a shame everything I learned in school is now wrong : (