Sunday, October 17, 2021

Mike Brown, an astronomer pushing a ninth planet, is the guy who helped demote Pluto

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The scientist championing the naming of a new ninth planet, Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, is the same one who got the old ninth planet, Pluto, removed from the list that teachers teach and students memorize. Many of Brown’s fellow astronomers are less than thrilled.

To be clear, most of the scientists The Daily Beast spoke with said they like Brown, respect his work and support his efforts to add at least one new planet to the current roster. They just disagree with what he did to Pluto back in 2006. Strongly. Fifteen years ago scientists by and large opposed, and later largely ignored, Pluto’s delisting. And they now question many of the assumptions surrounding Brown’s campaign for a new ninth member of Earth’s planetary club.

NASA/Joel Kowsky/Getty After all, to them, nothing was wrong with the old ninth planet. Brown’s potential new planet should be at least number 10—if not number 50 or 500. More importantly, they warned, arbitrary bureaucratic meddling in scientific definitions risks doing grave damage.

Alan Stern, the principal investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission, which sent a probe past Pluto in 2015, says Brown is “just wrong” about the demoted planet. “He’s wrong about Pluto,” planetary scientist Alan Stern, the principal investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission, which sent a probe past Pluto in 2015, told The Daily Beast.

The current controversy has its roots in a discovery 91 years ago, when astronomers at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona accidentally caught the first glimpse of the object that they would eventually name Pluto. It was very far away (3 billion miles or so), very small (less than a fifth the diameter of Earth) and shrouded in darkness. The Pluto kerfuffle “has actually created a divide between scientists and the public, and sends a terrible message—particularly for these time—that science is done by fiat on the basis of authority,” Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, told The Daily Beast.

Pluto was the latecomer and outlier, lurking in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt, a ring of comets, asteroids, and ice that’s so vast and so far from the Sun that it’s still mostly a mystery. It was deemed, uncontroversially at the time, a planet. After all, it was round and fairly smooth, meaning it possessed enough gravity to shape itself, very slowly over billions of years. And it clearly had complex geology. That matched the definition of “planet” that Italian polymath Galileo Galilei came up with nearly 500 years ago and which almost all astronomers agreed on in 1930—and still agree on today. With Pluto’s discovery, the solar system officially had nine planets: the fairly small inner planets Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars and, on the other side of a belt of asteroids, the mostly big outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

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