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Pluto and Eris: The Discussion Continues

Yesterday, Science published a paper by Michael E. Brown and Emily Schaller, reporting that Eris is actually more massive than Pluto, which would imply that if Pluto were to be considered a planet, Eris would have to be one as well. Anne Minard wrote an article on this discovery for the National Geographic News, and as it so happens she called me to get my opinion as the president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet (SP3).

Minard's article can be found at Pluto Smaller Than Nearby Dwarf Planet Eris, Study Finds. I'm actually found on page 2, and the article pretty much sums up where I stand:


Michael A. Burstein is president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, which goes by the acronym SP3. The group of astronomy buffs formed in the spring of 2006, when rumors first started circulating that Pluto was in trouble.

Burstein preferred the IAU's initial idea for a planet definition, which was never voted upon at their solar-system-shattering meeting last August.

By that definition—that a planet should directly orbit a star and be massive enough to be round—Pluto would still be a planet, as would dwarf planets Eris and Ceres, a large, round asteroid orbiting near Jupiter.

It's fine if we end up with 50 or even 100 planets as new objects are discovered, Burstein said. We could keep the math easy by calling the old guard, including Pluto, "classical planets," he added.

For now, Burstein's group is laying low to see what the pros do—under the guidance of New Horizons' Alan Stern. Stern is leading the charge of professional astronomers to dismiss the IAU's ruling.

"People just aren't using the IAU definition because it's so substantially flawed," he said. "Even their own members, and I'm one, aren't using the IAU definition."

The debate over a better definition was a hot topic at the April meeting of the European Geophysical Union. And it's already part of the agenda for the February 2008 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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