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Changing the maps: the solar system will expand to 12 stars

Hoping to end years of bickering, a committee of astronomers and historians proposed a new definition for the term "planet," one that would expand the family of planets from 9 to 12.

Dennis Overbay, New York Times

The Hayden Planetarium (pictured) was attacked for not defining Pluto as a planet
The Hayden Planetarium (pictured) was attacked for not defining Pluto as a planet

The new solar system

Hoping to end years of bickering, a committee of astronomers and historians proposed a new definition for the term "planet," one that would expand the family of planets from 9 to 12. This will make textbooks and tables in thousands of classrooms around the world out of date. The proposal caused much controversy and arguments among astronomers. "It's a mess," said Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology.

Among the few stars that will be included in the solar system will be not only Pluto, whose status in recent years has been controversial, but also Ceres, the largest asteroid; The star 2003 UB313, known as "Xena", an object that Braun discovered in 2005 and which moves in a more distant orbit than Pluto, on the edge of the solar system; And even Pluto's largest moon, Charon. In addition, scientists are looking for information about 6 other objects in the solar system, in order to determine if they are planets. The condition for such a classification is a sufficient size for the gravitational force to change its shape to a sphere, and that it orbits a star and not another planet. The definition, they said, would be applicable both inside and outside the solar system.

The new definition was announced yesterday in Prague, where some 2,500 astronomers met for the triennial conference of the International Astronomical Union. The astronomers will vote on the proposal on August 25. Therefore, it was not surprising that once the decision was leaked the other day, the reactions of the astronomers showed that the debate was far from over.

Neil DeGrace Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, who has been under fire for years for leaving Pluto out of the Solar System display, was disappointed with the committee's work. "I'm glad there's finally a definition that isn't ambiguous," Tyson said. "There hasn't been one like this in the last 2,500 years." But according to him, roundness is not the most appropriate feature to classify astronomical objects. “Pluto fans will love this setup. This is one of the few definitions that allow you to say Pluto and Jupiter in the same breath." On the other hand, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, called the definition "a nice solution that works both inside and outside the solar system."

Everyone agrees that a degree of clarity is required in the classification of objects in the solar system. The proposed definition will bring a sigh of relief to school children and others who supported Pluto's status. Pluto was discovered in 1930, and in the last decades, objects with similar orbits have been discovered in the Kuiper belt, the area around the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune. Recently, many astronomers have begun to argue that it makes more sense to think of Pluto as a Kuiper Belt object and more of a minor planet than a planet. When it became known that this is exactly what the Hayden Planetarium did in its display in New York, an uproar erupted. Children in schools felt the help of little and lonely Pluto. Two years ago, the International Astronomical Union appointed a group to try to solve the crisis and find a definition, but it hit a dead end. This year, a new group took on the task, and after a sleepless night in Paris last spring, a consensus was reached.

Acknowledging the idea of ​​classifying Pluto as part of the Kuiper belt, the group proposed calling planets with elongated orbits beyond Neptune "plutones," emphasizing that they are still planets. However, Dr. Brown pointed to the fact that at least 43 other objects in the Kuiper Belt are large enough to fit the definition of a planet, and there are even more. According to Dr. Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, if this trend continues, "we will have more planets inside the solar system than outside it."

But Dr. Stern believes that the new definition is logical and not arbitrary. According to him, it makes sense that there could be dozens of planets in our solar system. The new discoveries in the Kuiper belt, he added, put Pluto in a certain context. "Pluto is no longer unusual," said Dr. Stern. "It is closer to the average planet than the Earth." He added that "nature is much richer than our imagination. Life is hard, life is complicated. Get over it."

The new solar system map

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