A Solar System Demotion

Victoria Cubera

In William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lover Juliet pleads with Romeo to “swear not by the moon, th’inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb.” While their story would not have ended happily anyway, the young paramours would have been safer swearing by the moon than by Pluto, considering the moon still holds its official title as Earth’s satellite and Pluto’s celestial status as a planet was recently revoked.

Originally discovered on February 18, 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto may be the only former planet that was named by an eleven year old girl. Venetia Burney, an English schoolgirl interested in mythology, presented her idea to her grandfather, who was a former librarian of Oxford University. He used his contacts among the educational system to get her suggestion introduced as a candidate for the newly discovered planet’s name. Not even a month after the discovery, Pluto became the official name of the icy lump on March 5, 1930.

Pluto’s size and position in the solar system brought up the question of planetary definitions for astronomers and scientists. On August 24, 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) redefined what exactly being a planet entailed. To be a planet, the object must be massive enough that its own force of gravity forms the object into a sphere, must be orbiting the Sun, and must have cleared its orbital region of sizable bodies not under its own gravitational jurisdiction. Pluto failed to meet the last parameter, and after seventy years as a ‘real’ planet, was officially demoted to ‘dwarf planet’ status.

Almost a month after the IAU’s decision, the Pluto debate is still getting quite a bit of attention, from both scientific disciplines and college students. A search on Facebook.com yields over 500 groups concerning Pluto, most of which involve the celestial body, with titles ranging from ‘Mourners of Pluto’, to ‘Forget Steve Irwin, R.I.P. Pluto’, to ‘When I was your age, Pluto was a planet,’ which has over 189,000 members and is still expanding.

And indeed, Pluto’s demise as a full planet has far-reaching effects for children all over the world. Does anyone remember deciphering word-and-number thinking puzzles in school? While there are still ’52CIAD’ (52 cards in a deck) and ‘7WOTW’ (7 wonders of the world), lists containing ‘9PITSS’ just became obsolete, as there are not nine planets in the solar system anymore. Mickey Mouse’s beloved canine companion no longer has a counterpart somewhere beyond Neptune. And having a Sailor Pluto in the Sailor Moon series doesn’t really make sense anymore, now does it?

With the discovery of other large objects within the solar system, re-classification for planetary status was inevitable. If purely size-based, multiple asteroids would also qualify as ‘planets’, but drawing very fine distinctions could even strike Earth from the list. The International Astronomical Union had a rough but necessary job. Pluto has become more than just a planet, or a dwarf planet. Pluto’s demotion will be synonymous with an era in time, where fifty years from now, members of those Facebook groups will turn to their grandchildren to tell a story and the children will find them ancient because they remember nine planets instead of eight. With time comes change, especially in scientific knowledge. Despite previously held beliefs, the sun does not orbit the earth. The world is not flat. And sadly, Pluto is not a planet… except in our hearts.