Could Pluto get its planet status back? We're rooting for you, little guy.
Back in 2006, the International Astronomical Union threw us all for a loop when it demoted Pluto from a full-fledged planet to a dwarf planet. Forget all those lessons on the nine planets of the solar system — we were suddenly down one. It’s a decision that remains controversial, with many people feeling Pluto deserves to be a planet. And lucky for them, new images coming back from the New Horizons spacecraft could bolster their arguments in favor of reinstating Pluto.
In order to be a planet, according to the IAU, a candidate has to orbit the sun and be round. Both of those requirements Pluto has cleared. But there’s a third requirement, and that’s where Pluto gets hung up. Planets have to be the biggest “object” around, with no similarly sized or characterized objects nearby. With advances in technology, astronomers have deduced that there are other similarly sized objects that, like Pluto, orbit Neptune. Or so it seems.
But now, after almost a decade of space travel, New Horizons is getting close enough to send back incredibly detailed images of Pluto’s surface—and they might get a better look at the real size of the object compared to others in its orbit. This is the first mission dedicated to exploring the planet, albeit at a distance of over 7,500 miles. The craft will fly by Pluto tomorrow morning, giving us the clearest idea of what part the dwarf planet and its moons play in the larger solar system. Scientists are also hoping to get a better idea of what’s going on in Pluto’s atmosphere and on the surface of the planet.
“I think that one of the things that will come out of the New Horizons mission is that the public will take a look, and they won’t know what else to call Pluto but a planet, and a pretty exciting one,” New Horizons principle investigator Alan Stern told Popular Science.
“There’s not another mission like this in our time,” he went on to share. “We’re the only 21st century team that’s planning to explore a frontier planet, and no one’s planning to do it again.”
At this point, it’s unclear whether the IAU will be swayed by any findings on Pluto. But, they may not have to be. When Pluto lost planet-status, only 394 of the almost 10,000 members of the organization voted on the resolution, with 237 supporting it and 157 opposing. The rest of the members weren’t there at all! Another IAU general assembly is coming up in August, although there aren’t plans to revisit Pluto’s planet potential. But maybe, just maybe, tomorrow’s findings will be too awesome not to get on the docket.
(Image via pluto.jhuapl.edu)