In an op-ed today, the principal investigator for the New Horizons’ mission as well as his co-author for the history of that mission explained in detail why the definition for planet as imposed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is flawed and unworkable.
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced an attempted redefinition of the word “planet” that excluded many objects, including Pluto. We think that decision was flawed, and that a logical and useful definition of planet will include many more worlds.
We find ourselves using the word planet to describe the largest “moons” in the solar system. Moon refers to the fact that they orbit around other worlds which themselves orbit our star, but when we discuss a world like Saturn’s Titan, which is larger than the planet Mercury, and has mountains, dunes and canyons, rivers, lakes and clouds, you will find us — in the literature and at our conferences — calling it a planet. This usage is not a mistake or a throwback. It is increasingly common in our profession and it is accurate.
Most essentially, planetary worlds (including planetary moons) are those large enough to have pulled themselves into a ball by the strength of their own gravity. Below a certain size, the strength of ice and rock is enough to resist rounding by gravity, and so the smallest worlds are lumpy. This is how, even before New Horizons arrives, we know that Ultima Thule is not a planet. Among the few facts we’ve been able to ascertain about this body is that it is tiny (just 17 miles across) and distinctly nonspherical. This gives us a natural, physical criterion to separate planets from all the small bodies orbiting in space — boulders, icy comets or rocky and metallic asteroids, all of which are small and lumpy because their gravity is too weak for self-rounding.
They go on to explain the flawed history of the IAU definition, and how it has simply not been accepted by astronomers and planetary scientists alike. The definition makes no sense, and excludes the thousands of exoplanets discovered orbiting other stars. They also point to a proposed new definition that is simple and admits to reality.
A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters.
Whether or not the stuffed shirts at IAU ever officially endorse this definition, it is the one that human beings are using now, and it will be the one they use into the never-ending future.
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