How Eris robbed Pluto of its Planet Status

The space has always intrigued us. The infinite expanse holds so many unsolved mysteries, that we are always seeking more from it. In fact, in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a mad rush among astronomy enthusiasts to identify celestial bodies that are part of our planetary system. It was like Gold Rush, but in a limitless vacuum. It was in these times of obsessive explorations that Pluto was discovered.

The Chase for Pluto, the Planet

In 1906, a wealthy Boston resident, Percival Lowell, set up the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, with the key objective of discovering a ninth planet in the solar system. Despite dedicating the next decade and the rest of his life in pursuit of his ‘Planet X’, Lowell couldn’t pin it down. His research had, in fact, captured images of what we know today as Pluto – but not to his knowledge. Poor, sad, rich man!

After many legal squabbles, the pursuit was reinvigorated in 1929 by a young and enthusiastic Clyde Tombaugh, who had just joined the Lowell Observatory. In 1930, Tombaugh hit gold.

Lowell Observatory was flooded with suggestions of names for the new planet. An 11-year old school girl in Oxford, Venetia Burney, sent forth the name Pluto, after the God of the Underworld. The name was chosen and Venetia received a £5 prize for her contribution. 

For 76 years since, Pluto enjoyed the status of the youngest of Sun’s planets. And then came Eris!

The Dwarfing of Pluto: The quirky sibling that refused to fit in

Pluto was always slightly different from the other planets. For one, it has a very eccentric orbit, and for some part of its journey around the sun, it is closer to the star than Neptune. Since 1992, it started becoming clearer that Pluto was a part of other similar bodies orbiting in the same area. This population of celestial bodies came to be known as the Kuiper Belt.

In 2005, a Caltech team announced the discovery of Eris – a trans-Neptunian object, considerably more massive than Pluto. This was a problem. It meant that either Eris was a tenth planet – or we were not defining planets right!

This led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to set down the definition of planet in black and white:

1. Thou must orbit the Sun

2. Thou must have a nearly round shape (simplifying the rule here, a tad)

3. Thou must ‘clear the neighborhood’ around your orbit

And, suddenly, Pluto couldn’t clear the test. The erstwhile planet turned out to be a friendly one, with many peers hanging out close by. Instead of promoting all of them to the elite status of planets, the humans decided that it was easier to dwarf Pluto. 

I was already in college when Pluto lost its privilege. It is still hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the solar system has only eight planets and some dwarf cousins. In my head, Pluto will forever remain the quirky sibling that refused to fit in, and chose to lead the underdog team instead. You heard me, IAU – I don’t care!

About Anumita Ghosh

Anumita believes her calling has to do with the written words. She loves to write and read, and has recently given up a(n) (almost) rocking career in the Corporate to pursue her passion. Yes, she is slightly off her rocker, but then the society has been largely accepting of her madness. She is the co-founder of Blank Slate Chronicles and a struggling domestic apprentice, not to mention a loving (yet inadequately skilled) mother to a toddler.

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Anumita Ghosh

Anumita believes her calling has to do with the written words. She loves to write and read, and has recently given up a(n) (almost) rocking career in the Corporate to pursue her passion. Yes, she is slightly off her rocker, but then the society has been largely accepting of her madness. She is the co-founder of Blank Slate Chronicles and a struggling domestic apprentice, not to mention a loving (yet inadequately skilled) mother to a toddler.

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