Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


The IAU draft definition of “planet” and “plutons”

The world’s astronomers, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), have concluded two years of work defining the difference between “planets” and the smaller “solar system bodies” such as comets and asteroids. If the definition is approved by the astronomers gathered 14-25 August 2006 at the IAU General Assembly in Prague, our Solar System will include 12 planets, with more to come: eight classical planets that dominate the system, three planets in a new and growing category of “plutons” – Pluto-like objects – and Ceres. Pluto remains a planet and is the prototype for the new category of “plutons.”

With the advent of powerful new telescopes on the ground and in space, planetary astronomy has gone though an exciting development over the past decade. For thousands of years very little was known about the planets other than they were objects that moved in the sky with respect to the background of fixed stars. In fact the word “planet” comes from the Greek word for “wanderer”. But today hosts of newly discovered large objects in the outer regions of our Solar System present a challenge to our historically based definition of a “planet”.

The world’s astronomers, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), have concluded two years of work defining the lower end of the planet scale – what defines the difference between “planets” and “solar system bodies”. If the definition is approved by the astronomers gathered 14-25 August 2006 at the IAU General Assembly in Prague, our Solar System will consist of 12 planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon and 2003 UB313. The three new proposed planets are Ceres, Charon (Pluto’s companion) and 2003 UB313. There is no change in the planetary status of Pluto. In this artist’s impression the planets are drawn to scale, but without correct relative distances. Credit: The International Astronomical Union/Martin Kornmesser

At first glance one should think that it is easy to define what a planet is – a large and round body. On second thought difficulties arise, as one could ask “where is the lower limit?” – how large, and how round should an asteroid be before it becomes a planet – as well as “where is the upper limit?” – how large can a planet be before it becomes a brown dwarf or a star?

IAU President Ron Ekers explains the rational behind a planet definition: “Modern science provides much more knowledge than the simple fact that objects orbiting the Sun appear to move with respect to the background of fixed stars. For example, recent new discoveries have been made of objects in the outer regions of our Solar System that have sizes comparable to and larger than Pluto. These discoveries have rightfully called into question whether or not they should be considered as new ‘planets.’ ”

The International Astronomical Union has been the arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since its inception in 1919. The world’s astronomers, under the auspices of the IAU, have had official deliberations on a new definition for the word “planet” for nearly two years. IAU’s top, the so-called Executive Committee, led by Ekers, formed a Planet Definition Committee (PDC) comprised by seven persons who were astronomers, writers, and historians with broad international representation. This group of seven convened in Paris in late June and early July 2006. They culminated the two year process by reaching a unanimous consensus for a proposed new definition of the word “planet.”

Owen Gingerich, the Chair of the Planet Definition Committee says: “In July we had vigorous discussions of both the scientific and the cultural/historical issues, and on the second morning several members admitted that they had not slept well, worrying that we would not be able to reach a consensus. But by the end of a long day, the miracle had happened: we had reached a unanimous agreement.”

The part of “IAU Resolution 5 for GA-XXVI” that describes the planet definition, states “A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.” Member of the Planet Definition Committee, Richard Binzel says: “Our goal was to find a scientific basis for a new definition of planet and we chose gravity as the determining factor. Nature decides whether or not an object is a planet.”

According to the new draft definition, two conditions must be satisfied for an object to be called a “planet.” First, the object must be in orbit around a star, while not being itself a star. Second, the object must be large enough (or more technically correct, massive enough) for its own gravity to pull it into a nearly spherical shape. The shape of objects with mass above 5 x 1020 kg and diameter greater than 800 km would normally be determined by self-gravity, but all borderline cases would have to be established by observation.

If the proposed Resolution is passed, the 12 planets in our Solar System will be Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon and 2003 UB313. The name 2003 UB313 is provisional, as a “real” name has not yet been assigned to this object. A decision and announcement of a new name are likely not to be made during the IAU General Assembly in Prague, but at a later time. The naming procedures depend on the outcome of the Resolution vote. There will most likely be more planets announced by the IAU in the future. Currently a dozen “candidate planets” are listed on IAU’s “watchlist” which keeps changing as new objects are found and the physics of the existing candidates becomes better known.

The IAU draft Resolution also defines a new category of planet for official use: "pluton". Plutons are distinguished from classical planets in that they reside in orbits around the Sun that take longer than 200 years to complete (i.e. they orbit beyond Neptune). Plutons typically have orbits that are highly tilted with respect to the classical planets (technically referred to as a large orbital inclination). Plutons also typically have orbits that are far from being perfectly circular (technically referred to as having a large orbital eccentricity). All of these distinguishing characteristics for plutons are scientifically interesting in that they suggest a different origin from the classical planets.

The draft “Planet Definition” Resolution will be discussed and refined during the General Assembly and then it (plus four other Resolutions) will be presented for voting at the 2nd session of the GA 24 August between 14:00 and 17:30 CEST.

Lars Christensen | alfa
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Study offers new theoretical approach to describing non-equilibrium phase transitions
27.04.2017 | DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

nachricht SwRI-led team discovers lull in Mars' giant impact history
26.04.2017 | Southwest Research Institute

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Fighting drug resistant tuberculosis – InfectoGnostics meets MYCO-NET² partners in Peru

28.04.2017 | Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

Latest News

Wireless power can drive tiny electronic devices in the GI tract

28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering

Ice cave in Transylvania yields window into region's past

28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

Nose2Brain – Better Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

28.04.2017 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>