Petition for Pluto... Sept 1, 2006 15:23:57 GMT -6
Post by Chicago Astronomer Joe on Sept 1, 2006 15:23:57 GMT -6
Saving Pluto: The fightback begins
Only a week after Pluto was stripped of its status as a full-fledged planet of the Solar System, rebel astronomers have launched a campaign to have it restored in pomp and glory.
A petition already signed by more than 300 professional researchers is attacking the IAU decision.
The petition organiser, Mark Sykes, who is director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, said the IAU definition of a planet "does not meet fundamental scientific
"A more open process, involving a broader cross-section of the community engaged in planetary studies of our own Solar System and others should be undertaken," Sykes said.
The British magazine New Scientist said on its website Friday that the rebels intend to stage a conference next year to fix the definition of a planet. As many as 1,000 astronomers will attend, they hope.
A co-sponsor of the petition is Alan Stern, executive director of the Center for Space Exploration
Stern heads NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto. Its spacecraft -- which also bears some of the ashes of US astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930 -- blasted off in January this year, months before the IAU decision that relegated Pluto's status.
Stern said "only about 428" of the IAU's nearly 10,000 members were involved in the IAU vote in Prague on August 24 that condemned Pluto as a planetary midget.
That tally is barely more than the number of people who signed the protest petition within the first five days of its being launched, he said.
In that landmark general assembly, the IAU declared the Solar System now comprised eight planets: Mercury, Earth, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
Pluto's status had long been contested by astronomers who said its tiny size, eccentric orbit and orbital plane precluded it from joining the other acknowledged planets.
The IAU assigned Pluto and other large objects to a new category -- "dwarf planet."
By the new IAU yardstick, a planet has "cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit" -- in other words, it is massive enough to wield a gravity that clears rocks and other debris on its orbital path. The pro-Pluto group says no planet ever fully clears its orbit.
Earth has been catastrophically struck several times in its history by large space rocks and in 1994 even Jupiter, the biggest planet of the Solar System, was wacked by parts of a disintegrating comet, they note.
The planetary club, instead of being reduced to eight, should be enlarged to other planetary-sized objects, they say, an argument that others contest as unwieldy and confusing for the general public.
"The only thing missing when (the IAU) announced the decision at their press conference was the 'Mission Accomplished' banner," said University of Colorado researcher Jeffrey Bennett.
The next assembly of the IAU is in 2009, which means a long battle could be in the offing among astronomers, whose quiet and bookish exterior can mask steely resolve when it comes to disputes.
And so it begins.