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Pluto is a Planet — in Illinois!

March 6, 2009 on 5:32 pm | In Politics, Solar System |

I was going to write about something else today, but when I saw this story, I simply couldn’t resist. Apparently, the Illinois state legislature not only declared that Pluto is a planet like the other eight:

They also declared that March 13, 2009 is going to be the very first Pluto Day, in honor of the discovery of Pluto on March 13, 1930, by Illinois-born Astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh:

People talk about how small, insignificant, and far away Pluto is, and they’re right. But what they’re missing is just how lucky Tombaugh was to find it. Sure, there are many, many Kuiper Belt objects out there, and we know of lots of them at this point:

But after the discovery of Pluto, people searched, in earnest, for the 10th planet. It took a loooong time for the next Kuiper Belt object to be found. And when it was found, you know what it was?

Pluto’s moon, Charon! Do you know how long it took, after the discovery of Pluto, to find Charon? Almost 50 years! So yes, we know of many other Kuiper Belt objects now, and some of them are even more impressive than Pluto.

But Pluto holds a very special place as:

  • The first and only planet in our Solar System (even if it was only temporarily a planet) discovered by an American.
  • The very first Kuiper Belt object discovered.
  • The first trans-Neptunian object discovered.
  • And as being the 9th planet for about 70 years.

You know what I think about this? Good for Illinois. Good for them! This raises awareness of Astronomy, gives them something to be proud of and a great historical achievement to celebrate, and helps Pluto from fading into the obscurity that the other Kuiper Belt objects currently have to deal with.

So good for Illinois, good for Pluto, and good for you for not forgetting it. Someday, I would love for Pluto to be given a real, useful designation by the IAU, like “King of the Ice Dwarfs.”

Perhaps we’ll discover some wonderful things about it when New Horizons gets there; April of 2015, folks, and don’t forget to celebrate Pluto day on March 13th!


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  1. agreed!

    Comment by Dan W. — March 6, 2009 #

  2. Kudos to the Illinois legislature for doing this. Pluto is not a “temporary planet,” and it is very much like the other eight, as it is in a state of hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning it has been pulled into a round shape by its own self gravity. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Only one Kuiper Belt Object discovered so far is larger than Pluto, and only a few are spherical. These should also be considered planets. I urge anyone who shares this view to visit for contact information to email the IAU and its president, asking them to reopen this issue at this summer’s General Assembly. That would be the best way of celebrating Pluto Day.

    One minor correction: New Horizons (whose Principal Investigator is the leading scientist arguing against Pluto’s demotion) will arrive at Pluto in July, not April, of 2015.

    Comment by Laurel Kornfeld — March 6, 2009 #

  3. Fun! At first I thought Illinois was crazy to do this - like the Indiana state legislature declaring that pi is officially 3. However, after reading your post, I tend to agree with you that this is a net plus since it raises space awareness. Although I don’t think it really matters what labels we affix to the planets or almost-planets, I do support the latest IAU classification scheme that calls Pluto a “dwarf planet.”

    Comment by Brian — March 7, 2009 #

  4. FYI, someone wrote a widget tracking the New Horizons mission’s progress reaching Pluto (web-based version and Mac OS dashboard widget).

    Comment by Brian — March 7, 2009 #

  5. Yes, but they DIDN’T say that it was “the first and only planet in our Solar System discovered by an American,” as you said. What they DID say is that Tombaugh is the “only American to ever discover a planet”. False, false, false.

    Good for them?? Yes, it’s *so* awesome that a bunch of Illinois State Assemblymen who know jack about astronomy decide that they should get to declare what is and what isn’t. These guys don’t even seem to know that we’ve discovered other planets, so why should we defer to their opinion on other terminology semantics?

    Comment by bswift — March 7, 2009 #

  6. New horizons first gets to Pluto in April of 2015, but it doesn’t reach closest approach until July.

    I know that Pluto isn’t “important” for the Solar System the way the other eight planets are. I think the IAU is justified in their technical approach and interpretation of what is and isn’t a planet.

    But I don’t agree with keeping astronomy for the astronomers. If astronomers decided to deprecate the use of Pluto and instead called it Kuiper 1, do you think the general public would stop calling it Pluto? Or should? People have, for better or worse, a genuine interest in this lonely, distant object. I’m all for encouraging that, and for making a day to celebrate Pluto’s discovery. That can’t possibly be a bad thing, can it?

    Comment by ethan — March 7, 2009 #

  7. I disagree that Pluto is less important than the other eight planets. Size is not the only determinant of importance. It turns out the majority of planets in this and other solar systems are small ones like Pluto, making Pluto a necessary and vital area to study, one that tells us a lot about the origin and formation of the solar system.

    The IAU messed up in saying dwarf planets are not planets, which is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. They also messed up in establishing a classification scheme that defines objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to the IAU definition, it would not be a planet either. A simple amendment of its resolution to make dwarf planets a subclass of planets would end much of the controversy.

    Of course, astronomy is for everyone, not just astronomers. In fact, there are about 20 amateur astronomers for every one professional. Taxpayers fund research in astronomy and should definitely have a say in it and be respected when it comes to decision making.

    Comment by Laurel Kornfeld — March 7, 2009 #

  8. If it is so important, does it matter if it’s called a planet or not? All of Laurel’s comments above still apply whether we call it a planet or dwarf planet or whatever. I think the Illinois legislature’s decision shows a degree of silliness, if nothing else. Reclassification of species occurs in biology all the time, and I don’t recall anyone pitching a fit about it. It’s one thing for laypeople to care about and have interest in a science (eg astronomy), and quite another for them to be making decrees as though they are themselves scientists.

    Though the whole notion of finding it more important because someone from Illinois found it has potential to get silly all by itself (I’m thinking of Ohio and North Carolina’s license plates BOTH referring to the Wright brothers here).

    Comment by benhead — March 11, 2009 #

  9. Way to go Illinois!! Plu will allways be a planet in our harts (i started shorting Pluto to Plu after the demotion to dwarf planet and I just think it is cute) But anny who Yahy for Pluto Day!!

    Comment by Rebecca — May 17, 2009 #

  10. […] than 100 km in diameter, Jupiter has 7, Saturn has 11, Uranus has 8, and Neptune has 6. Hell, even not-a-planet Pluto has 1, the same number as the entire inner Solar […]

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  11. This is a joke, right? Pluto is just one of over a thousand objects discovered in the Kuiper Belt.
    Yes, it was (and still is) a great discovery, but for the Illinois legislature to do this is going to keep our society in the dark ages as far as science is concerned. What’s next, are they going to make it a law that taking a picture of someone captures their soul?

    Great job, Illinois; you’ll be forever suck in the 20th Century, while the rest of the world moves on and gains a greater understanding of the Universe.

    Also, you need to update your Kuiper Belt objects; Eris is no longer called “Xena”

    Comment by zmoonchild — July 22, 2009 #

  12. Bravo for the Illinois legislature for telling those pompous bstards where to go on Pluto. The majority of us out here were not impressed with the International Astronomical Union’s version of wannabe gunfighter Robert Ford shooting Jesse James.

    We learned nothing about Pluto by recatagorising it based on what we already knew. It was a cheap stunt done for notoriety; they were too impressed with themselves. What’s next, renaming the Moon? And why not, it’s not “the Moon”, it’s a moon and there are lots of them in the system so let’s fix this mistake in the name of useless science.

    People with nothing else to do, nothing to accomplish, and nothing to make a name on decided that Pluto was an easy target. “Ah ha! We’ll be remembered for this”. And so they stripped Pluto - despite the uproar, of its (he,he)honored and prestigious place as one of the planets of the solar system. Oh, such power. Did they honestly have nothing else to do?

    Pluto may be small - it is, but it still has the characteristics of a planet; it’s round and follows a path in the solar system along with eight other planets. It’s not a comet, it’s not a potato shaped asteroid or a moon so “planet” will have to do. Sometimes you just have to accept what is.

    Comment by Robert Norwood — April 5, 2010 #

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  23. Ethan,

    You have the dates wrong. Tombaugh discovered Pluto on 18 February, 1930 by using a blink comparator with two images he’d taken in January

    The IAU credited the discovery in March and the dwarf planet was named “Pluto” in July, 1930



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