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After nearly two decades of searching, astronomers have detected carbon monoxide in Pluto’s thin atmosphere, as they expected. But they didn’t expect to find so much of it. Pluto's dramatic seasonal changes serve as further evidence that the dwarf planet is one surprising little bugger.
"Everything about Pluto is surprising," Jane Greaves, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told me. Greaves presented the new results today at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Wales. Five years ago, Pluto was at the center of a controversy over the definition of planethood — which resulted in the creation of the dwarf-planet category, a new class of celestial objects. More recent observations have pointed up still more peculiarities about Pluto. For example, scientists have found that the faraway world's surface features are changing, that its atmosphere contains clouds, and that it might even harbor a pool of liquid beneath its icy shell.
Read the rest at Cosmic Log along with an artist's depiction.
Last Edit: Apr 19, 2011 21:49:31 GMT -6 by patrickm
Last night my 6 year old son and I were at "Camp Read-A-Lot" at his school. There were people from our local library signing people up for library cards and passing out book marks. My son chose one that had Jupiter and Ganymede on it. On the way home he was asking questions about the planets and about Pluto in particular. He was intrigued that it suddenly wasn't a planet anymore. I tried to explain why, and he wanted to see how it compared in size to the Moon, Jupiter and Ganymede. When we got home I did a Google image search to try and answer his questions. Among the pictures that came up was this one.
The image was created by Mathias Pedersen and you can find larger versions on his website.
I love the concept. I especially loved that he included the rings of Uranus and he has it sitting sideways. I wonder why he didn't include the rings for Neptune and Jupiter. The angry look of Mars is good too.
Post by Chicago Astronomer Joe on May 6, 2011 9:13:32 GMT -6
From the inside scoop...
The demotion of Pluto was drivin on Anti-American sentiment at the IAU. As Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American and we were deep in the Middle East at the time when the new criteria was invoked....it was a symbolic international slap.
The official line is that now, with more and more objects being discovered , some larger than Pluto...the number of planets would be in excess of 15 and growing...too many for the simple kids of Earth to remember. And the new criteria that kicked Pluto out of the club was....that it hadn't cleared it's neighborhood of debris....
This was shared at a lecture we had at the Adler by a renowned Vatican Astronomer who was part of the Pluto decision.
Good science is far more than the memorizing of nomenclature, including lists of names of planets, that too many fourth grade teachers seem incapable of getting beyond. Nevertheless, far too many of their students maintain a lifetime emotional attachment to those lists. Scientists are aided in their research and theory development by rational classification systems. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union wisely came to realize that the dynamical structure of the solar system requires that Pluto be placed into a class of objects other than that of the major planets. It wasn't a demotion (Pluto is not a person); it was a reclassification. Unfortunately, some of those with emotional attachments to the name Pluto only want to hear of planet definitions that Pluto would fit. Science is better than that.
It’s unfortunate that astronomers in 1930 failed to study more deeply the true nature of the little body they detected on photographs. Apparently some of them started to do just that, but when the media began declaring Pluto a planet, the astronomers directly involved became overcome with a false sense of pride and accepted the appellation. If they had considered the development of scientific understanding to be more important than becoming the “discoverer” of a planet, we may today be referring to the “Tombaugh” Belt rather than the Kuiper Belt. Our understanding of the origin, nature and evolution of the solar system could have progressed far more rapidly.
In 1930 plenty of evidence regarding Pluto’s unusual nature was overlooked, disregarded or dismissed with delusional explanations. In future centuries the young lab assistant Tombaugh essentially will be forgotten, but astronomer Gerard Kuiper’s name will be immortal. “Discovering” a celestial body when assigned to examine photographs is an insignificant accomplishment compared with discovering a natural law or a general characteristic of the solar system. Too bad for Clyde; he needed to be more diligent, especially after he finally entered college and earned a degree in astronomy.
Eventually the true nature of Pluto and its trans-Neptunian siblings became better understood, resulting in a shortening of the list of major planets. Students went through a similar catharsis when nineteenth century astronomers eventually accepted that asteroids belonged in a separate class from the major planets, resulting in your great-great-great grandfather having to grudgingly forget that Ceres, Pallas, Vesta, etc. were major planets. You can do the same with Pluto.
Please do not become the equivalent of a twenty-first century flat-earther and insist that lists memorized in grade school must be written in stone. Science moves onward and all of us can join in its intellectual development, as long as we choose to exercise our brains and avoid becoming stuck in mud.
Below is a link to the paper by Steven Soter that provided the basis for the 2006 IAU ruling. In addition, the January 2007 issue of Scientific American had a feature article by Soter who provided a fine overview of the subject for laymen. You should be able to obtain a copy from the archives of your public library.