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Home » Dave’s DiegesesSeptember 2005 » Dave’s Diegesis: Interspherence

Dave’s Diegesis: Interspherence

A friend of mine once sent me a post card with a picture of the entire planet Earth taken from space. On the back it said, “Wish you were here.”
Stephen Wright

People have goals, some mundane, some grandiose: learning a new language, running a 10-minute mile, climbing all the highest mountains on seven continents, making a soufflé, or acquiring the skill to play a sitar. Geeks, who are people, too, also have similar aspirations, esoteric though they may be. We may delight in discovering a new species, being named a MacArthur fellow, getting a job with NESN as a baseball analyst, and identifying a new planet.

This last ambition may become more difficult to accomplish thanks to the killjoys at the International Astronomical Union (IAU). A special working group of the IAU was convened to specify what constitutes a planet in the Solar System. Their work was accelerated because of the controversy over several recently discovered objects that the IAU is questioning as proper planets.

At the far reaches of our Solar System is the Kuiper belt, which is a ring of asteroids or Trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) that orbit the Sun. Most TNOs are ice with some some organic compounds, which is the basic composition of comets. In fact, the distinction between “asteroid” and “comet” is another long-cherished astronomical certainty that has been called into question (and I am positive a working group of the IAU is being conjured as I write this to settle the issue). It turns out that there is at least one TNO that is larger than Pluto.

Pluto’s planethood has also been called into question. In fact, many astronomers claim that had Pluto been discovered today, the paperwork to definitively call it a planet would not have been notarized by the proper authorities of the IAU in the timeframe of an orbit of the Sun by the ninth planet, which is 248 years. It might be possible for said paperwork to processed in time for Pluto to become the eighth planet from the sun, which it will be in 222 years since its path takes it within the domain of Neptune’s ambit.

Just ask Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, Chad Trujillo of Gemini Observatory in Mount Kilauea, and David Rabinowitz of Yale University, hopeful discoverers of what could be defined as the tenth planet. The trio identified 2003 UB313 on January 5, 2005 from images captured on October 21, 2003. From the available data, it seems that the object is at least one and a half times larger than Pluto. It orbits the sun every 560 years at an odd 45-degree angle to the ecliptic. It is further sub-classified as a scattered disc object (SBO), a TNO whose bizarre orbital path is attributed to interactions with Neptune at the dawn of the Solar System. Not surprisingly, the discovering team wanted to dispense with the alphabet soup used to describe the object and petitioned the IAU to officially label UB313 as a planet.

The IAU has this sparse announcement on their website regarding TNO UB313:

We repeat below an earlier announcement of an IAU Working Group for establishing a definition of a planet. The discovery of 2003 UB313 has precipitated the need for such a definition in order to decide whether 2003 UB313 is to be classified as a planet or not. Until then the object will not be given an official name by the IAU.

Definition of a Planet

The IAU notes the very rapid pace of discovery of bodies within the Solar System over the last decade, and so our understanding of the Trans-Neptunian Region is therefore still evolving very rapidly. This is in serious contrast to the situation when Pluto was discovered. As a consequence, the IAU has established a Working Group: “Definition of a Planete [sic] under Division III, to consider the definition of a minimum size for a Planet. Until the report of this Working Group is received, all objects discovered at a distance greater than 40 AU will continue to be regarded as part of the Trans-Neptunian population.

What be you, UB313?


Discovery images of the new planet. The three images were taken
1 1/2 hours apart on the night of October 21st, 2003.
The planet can be seen very slowly moving across the sky over the course of 3 hours.

Every Friday, Dave McCarty will join us to discuss a topic of interest to him and probably no one else but the author of this site and other seekers of the .

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