Why the Universe Is Annoyed by the Astronomer Pushing a Ninth Planet

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photo Getty/NASA

It’s one of the most exciting things in the whole field of astronomy: the discovery of a new planet.

But the push to recognize one particular object—an apparent orb many times the size of Earth that seems to be spinning along the outer solar system—as a major planet has been complicated by the history of one earthling.

The scientist championing the naming of a new ninth planet, Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, is the same one who got the old ninth planet, Pluto, removed from the list that teachers teach and students memorize.

Many of Brown’s fellow astronomers are less than thrilled.

To be clear, most of the scientists The Daily Beast spoke with said they like Brown, respect his work and support his efforts to add at least one new planet to the current roster. They just disagree with what he did to Pluto back in 2006. Strongly.

“He’s wrong about Pluto,” planetary scientist Alan Stern, the principal investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission, which sent a probe past Pluto in 2015, told The Daily Beast.

Alan Stern, the principal investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission, which sent a probe past Pluto in 2015, says Brown is “just wrong” about the demoted planet. NASA/Joel Kowsky/Getty

Fifteen years ago scientists by and large opposed, and later largely ignored, Pluto’s delisting. And they now question many of the assumptions surrounding Brown’s campaign for a new ninth member of Earth’s planetary club.

After all, to them, nothing was wrong with the old ninth planet. Brown’s potential new planet should be at least number 10—if not number 50 or 500. More importantly, they warned, arbitrary bureaucratic meddling in scientific definitions risks doing grave damage.

The Pluto kerfuffle “has actually created a divide between scientists and the public, and sends a terrible message—particularly for these time—that science is done by fiat on the basis of authority,” Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, told The Daily Beast.

The current controversy has its roots in a discovery 91 years ago, when astronomers at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona accidentally caught the first glimpse of the object that they would eventually name Pluto. It was very far away (3 billion miles or so), very small (less than a fifth the diameter of Earth) and shrouded in darkness.

It was deemed, uncontroversially at the time, a planet. After all, it was round and fairly smooth, meaning it possessed enough gravity to shape itself, very slowly over billions of years. And it clearly had complex geology. That matched the definition of “planet” that Italian polymath Galileo Galilei came up with nearly 500 years ago and which almost all astronomers agreed on in 1930—and still agree on today.

With Pluto’s discovery, the solar system officially had nine planets: the fairly small inner planets Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars and, on the other side of a belt of asteroids, the mostly big outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Pluto was the latecomer and outlier, lurking in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt, a ring of comets, asteroids, and ice that’s so vast and so far from the Sun that it’s still mostly a mystery.

The planet Pluto is pictured in a composite of four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager in July 2015. Reuters

The lineup stayed the same for the next 76 years. Then, in 2005, Brown and his team detected another object in the Kuiper Belt, one that was much bigger than Pluto. NASA initially described this object, which came to be known as “Eris,” as the solar system’s 10th planet.

“After we discovered Eris, and realized that Eris is more massive than Pluto, you’ve got to do something,” Brown told the BBC in July. Rightly suspecting there were more planet-like objects out there in the Kuiper Belt, he appealed to the Paris-based International Astronomical Union, the leading association for astronomers and other planetary scientists, to reconsider the definition of “planet” in order to prevent the accepted list from growing by dozens or more—an expansion Brown at the time described as “ridiculous.”

In August 2006, a small group within the IAU surprised the rest of the union and the world at large when at the end of a weeklong conference in Prague they voted on a hastily drafted proclamation rejecting Pluto’s status as a full planet.

The scientific rank-and-file howled. The new definition of “planet” that the IAU embraced, all in order to boot Pluto off the list and keep Eris off, required that a round body orbit our sun and also use its gravity to clear the space around it of asteroids and other smaller objects.

It was, in the minds of many astronomers, a bizarre definition. For one, it excluded Earth during its messy early eons. It also left out thousands of confirmed “exo-planets” orbiting stars besides our own. (Catherine Cesarsky, who became the IAU’s president just days after the Pluto delisting and spent years defending the decision, did not reply to a request for comment.)

Stern said the IAU wanted to keep the official list of planets in our solar system short so that teachers would have no problem teaching the list, and students would have an easier time memorizing it—a motive he finds “intensely objectionable.”

“Do we have eight states in the United States so schoolchildren don’t have to memorize all 50?” he asked. “Do we limit the number of species?”

As a result of the cursory vote, Pluto became a planetoid rather than a planet, as did Eris. And the grumbling in the wider scientific community began, continuing to this day.

“I think the IAU’s demotion of Pluto was questionable,” Steve Maran, a former NASA astrophysicist, told The Daily Beast.

But Brown approved of the move. “Pluto would never have been called a planet if it were discovered today,” he said in 2010 while promoting his book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

The new definition of “planet” gave Brown the freedom to assess faraway objects such as Eris without having to argue for their planethood.

“I think that Pluto as an example of a large Kuiper Belt object is so much more interesting than Pluto as this very weird planet at the outer edge of the solar system, unlike anything else,” Brown told Space.com in 2010.

Brown told The Daily Beast recently that he hasn’t changed his mind about Pluto. And he insisted the outrage has subsided. “There are a few loud voices continuing to proclaim that Pluto should still be a planet, but most everyone else has moved on,” he said.

Brown has certainly moved on—to another something spinning along the Kuiper Belt that he thinks is more deserving of planetary status than Pluto.

Working alongside fellow Caltech astronomer Konstantin Batygin, Brown has been tracking asteroids and other denizens of the dark outer edge of our solar system. He and Batygin noticed some of them seeming to cluster around a particular spot in space up to 100 billion miles from Earth.

No planet is visible—it might be too far away and too dark—but the clustering of the smaller, brighter objects could hint at an unseen planet’s gravity. “There is gravitational evidence for it,” Batygin told The Daily Beast. “But the search will not conclude until we have an image in hand.”

Caltech astronomer Mike Brown briefs the media about a potential ninth planet. AFP via Getty

If Brown and Batygin can finally get a good look at whatever might be there—perhaps using NASA’s soon-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope—it’s possible they’ll be able to argue for the IAU and other astronomical authorities to recognize a new No. 9. Brown and Batygin’s summary of their initial survey has been accepted for publication in Astronomical Journal.

Brown said he’s confident the discovery will obviously and uncontroversially be a planet. “It would be six times more massive than the Earth and the fifth largest planet in our solar system,” he explained.

And many scientists agree with Brown that his find could be a planet, even under the IAU’s newly stringent definition. Their complaint is that lots of objects out there in the Kuiper Belt also warrant the label—just like Pluto.

Astronomers never really accepted the IAU’s 2006 redefinition of “planet.” Philip Metzger, a physicist at the University of Central Florida who surveyed the scientific literature for years following the Pluto delisting, discovered that almost all scientists chose to simply ignore the IAU’s proclamation.

But the change did register with the general public. Textbook authors and schools in particular took their cue from the IAU and dropped Pluto from their texts and lessons on the makeup of the solar system.

While Brown seemed to hope that delisting Pluto would free him to explore the complexity of the solar system, it paradoxically had the effect of simplifying the public’s conception of space. And this narrowing focus came at a time when new discoveries, piling up by the month and year, reveal an increasingly bizarre and busy cosmos.

“Because of the IAU, the public is isolated from the excitement of what a mess things are out there!” Sykes said. “The solar system is lousy with planets!”

Brown’s own push for a new ninth planet underscores that reality. The simplified conception of space that prompted Pluto’s downgrade is a kind of strained fiction—one that, to many scientists, seems more implausible by the day.

Internet Explorer Channel Network
News Related

OTHER NEWS

Only a fraction of operators have reached '5G' tipping point

Just 14% of 5G operators around the world have been able to encourage 10% or more of their customers to subscribe to their next generation network service. © Provided by ... Read more »

The best wireless headphones 2021: our pick of the best ways to cut the cord

The best wireless headphones of 2021 include some of the most advanced audio devices we’ve ever seen. The best part? These wireless headphones come in all shapes and sizes, from ... Read more »

Malware can easily abuse Discord features to attack users

© Provided by TechRadar Malware Cybersecurity experts have successfully demonstrated that the features of gaming-centric messaging platform Discord can easily be abused for malicious purposes. Researchers from Check Point Research ... Read more »

New US rules on spyware exports try to limit surveillance tech like Pegasus

The US Department of Commerce announced a new rule to prevent the sale of hacking tools to China and Russia, The Washington Post reports. The Commerce Department outlined the change ... Read more »

How to customize your iPhone's app icons

Have you ever wanted to make your iPhone your own, with your individualized style and flair? Sure, you can change your home screen wallpaper. But if you really want to ... Read more »

Vergecast: Apple and Google's competing events this week

Every Friday, The Verge publishes our flagship podcast, The Vergecast, where co-hosts Nilay Patel and Dieter Bohn discuss the week in tech news with the reporters and editors covering the ... Read more »

Tokyo 2020 Olympics suffered half a billion attempted cyberattacks

Whilst the Olympic Games were taking place in Tokyo earlier this year, another, huge competition was also taking place behind the curtain – between the organization’s 200-people strong cybersecurity team, ... Read more »

The 47 best gifts for couples that they'll both enjoy

— Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission. Trying to pick out the perfect gift for your couple friends ... Read more »

A retail listing shows the specs of the Intel Core i9-12900K Alder Lake CPU

© Windows Central Intel Core i9-11900K review The specs of the upcoming Intel Core i9-12900K have appeared on a retail listing. What you need to know A retail listing reveals ... Read more »

Here's when you can start playing Age of Empires 4

© Provided by Windows Central Here’s when you can choose your civilization and begin gathering resources. At long last, Age of Empires 4 is on the way, soon to be ... Read more »

Not just Wix: Another Israeli Technology Enables No Coding Engagement Products

© Storycards Gil Rabbi, Co-Founder at Storycards Following the huge success of Wix in no-coding web design, another Israeli company, Storycards, led by engagement guru Gil Rabbi will bring no-coding ... Read more »

Human brain DECREASED in size 3,000 years ago, study finds

© Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo The size of the human brain has changed numerous times throughout human history, but the vital organ decreased approximately 3,000 years ago due ... Read more »

Rocket failure mars US hypersonic missile test

The Pentagon’s hypersonic weapon programs suffered a setback on Thursday when a booster rocket carrying a hypersonic weapon failed, people briefed on the test result said. © Andrey Rudakov /Bloomberg ... Read more »

The Navy released a scathing report about the fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard

This story originally published on Task & Purpose.​ © Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross/U.S. Navy The Navy sailor who set the 2020 fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard ... Read more »

Get more done with 20% off HP's EliteOne 800 G6 all-in-one and other PCs

If you’re looking for a computer upgrade at work, HP has a few devices on sale right now that will definitely upgrade your office space. With the code HPEXCLUSIVETWENTYOFF, you ... Read more »

Twitter's algorithm favours right-leaning politics

© Getty Images Twitter amplifies tweets from right-leaning political parties and news outlets more than from the left, its own research suggests. The social-media giant said it made the discovery ... Read more »

Samsung's unique Frame TV is $500 off

Samsung’s The Frame doubles as both wall art and an HDR-compatible QLED TV. The television offers a decor-friendly design while also displaying customizable images when somebody’s in the room. When ... Read more »

Best Destiny 2 Exotic weapons and armor in 2021

© Provided by Windows Central These are the most powerful and efficient Exotics in the Destiny 2 sandbox. Exotics are the most powerful and unique items you can obtain in ... Read more »

Lukaku and Werner will miss Chelsea's next two games AT LEAST

© Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo Chelsea have been dealt a double injury blow ahead of this weekend’s clash with Norwich City, after Thomas Tuchel confirmed that they will ... Read more »

10 must-have plus-size clothes to buy from Old Navy

— Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission. I have no qualms admitting it: I love Old Navy. More ... Read more »

UK households offered £5,000 grants to replace boilers with heat pumps

The government recently announced that it will provide £450 million in funding to encourage households in England and Wales to install electric heat pumps. Over the next three years, it’s ... Read more »

New Microsoft 365 service identifies privacy risk before it's too late

Microsoft has announced new controls for Microsoft 365 that will help customers manage privacy of their users in accordance with the local laws. © Provided by TechRadar A representational image ... Read more »

Baby octopuses grow hundreds of temporary organs, then lose them without a trace

Your internal organs grow and change throughout your life, but rarely do they vanish without a trace. For baby octopuses, things are not so simple. © Provided by Live Science ... Read more »

Xbox series X stock - live: AO restock sells out – here's who could drop next

LIVE – Updated at 14:00 © iStock/The Independent Xbox liveblog hero Update: Argos has restocked the Xbox series X for collection in specific stores. Enter your postcode to check your ... Read more »

NASA's Deep Space Food Challenge awards $450,000 to first-round winners

© Provided by Space NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have teamed up for the Deep Space Food Challenge, which aims to spur new ideas about how to feed astronauts ... Read more »

China, space junk and more: Senators voice spaceflight concerns

© Provided by Space Cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky shared this photo of the International Space Station on Twitter on Sept. 29, 2021. He and two colleagues were relocating a Russian Soyuz ... Read more »

Challenge for astronomy: Megaconstellations becoming the new light pollution

© Provided by Space An astronomical image marred by trails caused by satellites of SpaceX’s Starlink megaconstellation. Satellite megaconstellations are quickly becoming a serious problem to 21st century astronomy akin ... Read more »

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will face '29 days on the edge' after launch (video)

© Provided by Space Artist’s illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope with its massive sunshield fully deployed. NASA’s newest space telescope will face 29 “harrowing” days after launch as ... Read more »

10 incredibly stylish clogs to wear this fall

— Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission. Walk down the shoe aisle of a department store, open up ... Read more »

Sony's WH-1000XM4 headphones fall to $248, plus the rest of the week's best tech deals

This week brought our first official early Black Friday sale, courtesy of Best Buy. While we expect to see even more of these events before we hit Black Friday proper, ... Read more »

Best smart home devices 2021: automate your home with these gadgets

The best smart home device will ensure your property offers the perfect environment without you having to lift a finger. Whether you want the light dimmed to a certain level, ... Read more »

Trump's social network was defaced before it even launched

It took only a few hours for pranksters to find and deface a test version of former President Trump’s yet-to-launch social media platform called TRUTH Social. According to The Washington ... Read more »

The Verge Merch Store is back!

The Verge is celebrating its 10th birthday on November 1st, so we thought this would be the perfect occasion to relaunch our online merch store! Check out the store here. ... Read more »

Engadget Podcast: Apple's new MacBook Pros, the Pixel 6 and the Surface Duo 2

Techtober continues with a deep dive into Apple’s latest MacBook Pros, powered by the new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Cherlynn and Devindra also chat about what’s new with ... Read more »

Micro Center leaks specs and pricing for Intel's new Alder Lake Core i9 CPU

© Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge Even though someone managed to secure early purchases of a couple of Core i9-12900K CPUs, we still didn’t have detailed information about ... Read more »

Someone got their hands on the unannounced Intel Core i9-12900K CPU

The Intel Core i9-12900K hasn’t even been announced, but someone got their hands on a pair of them. © Provided by Windows Central What you need to know A Reddit ... Read more »

Everything you need to know about the new Surface Duo 2

© Windows Central Surface Duo 2 Hero Got questions? We’ve got answers! Microsoft’s Surface Duo 2 is now officially available. Just like last year, we’ve compiled a mega list of ... Read more »

Haunted Chocolatier looks like the perfect follow-up to Stardew Valley

The creator of Stardew Valley has announced the title of his next game: Haunted Chocolatier.  © Provided by TechRadar Haunted Chocolatier logo on a starry backbround In Haunted Chocolatier, you’ll ... Read more »

Fury over 'absurd' GP plans to 'STRIKE'

© Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo Doctors in England were today slammed for threatening industrial action over being ‘asked to do the very basics’ of their jobs, amid a ... Read more »
On free-english-test.com you will find lots of free English exam practice materials to help you improve your English skills: grammar, listening, reading, writing, ielts, toeic