The IAU rules — Pluto not a planet anymore

Pluto and Charon

Via via BoingBoing — Pluto (above with Charon) gets a “demotion” down to a new class of “dwarf planets.” It’s not buzz anymore: it’s official. The solar system now has only eight planets (down from the proposed 12!):

Much-maligned Pluto doesn’t make the grade under the new rules for a planet: “a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a … nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”

Pluto is automatically disqualified because its oblong orbit overlaps with Neptune’s.

Instead, it will be reclassified in a new category of “dwarf planets,” similar to what long have been termed “minor planets.” The definition also lays out a third class of lesser objects that orbit the sun — “small solar system bodies,” a term that will apply to numerous asteroids, comets and other natural satellites.

Here’s the official IAU resolution, pasted from their website:

The IAU therefore resolves that “planets” and other bodies in our Solar System be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:

(1) A “planet”1 is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape2 , (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects3 except satellites orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar-System Bodies”.

1The eight planets are: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

2An IAU process will be established to assign borderline objects into either dwarf planet and other categories.

3These currently include most of the Solar System asteroids, most Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), comets, and other small bodies.

3 responses to “The IAU rules — Pluto not a planet anymore

  1. Pluto IS a planet because unlike most objects in the Kuiper Belt, it has attained hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning it has enough self-gravity to have pulled itself into a round shape. When an object is large enough for this to happen, it becomes differentiated with core, mantle, and crust, just like Earth and the larger planets, and develops the same geological processes as the larger planets, processes that inert asteroids and most KBOs do not have.

    Not distinguishing between shapeless asteroids and objects whose composition clearly makes them planets is a disservice and is sloppy science.

    As of now, there are three other KBOs that meet this criterion and therefore should be classified as planets—Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Only one KBO has been found to be larger than Pluto, and that is Eris.

    The IAU definition makes no linguistic sense, as it states that dwarf planets are not planets at all. That’s like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear. Second, it defines objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were placed in Pluto’s orbit, by the IAU definition, it would not be a planet. That is because the further away an object is from its parent star, the more difficulty it will have in clearing its orbit.

    Significantly, this definition was adopted by only four percent of the IAU, most of whom are not planetary scientists. No absentee voting was allowed. It was done so in a highly controversial process that violated the IAU’s own bylaws, and it was immediately opposed by a petition of 300 professional astronomers saying they will not use the new definition, which they described accurately as “sloppy.” Also significant is the fact that many planetary scientists are not IAU members and therefore had no say in this matter at all.

    Many believe we should keep the term planet broad to encompass any non-self-luminous spheroidal object orbiting a star.
    We can distinguish different types of planets with subcategories such as terrestrial planets, gas giants, ice giants, dwarf planets, super Earths, hot Jupiters, etc.

    We should be broadening, not narrowing our concept of planet as more objects are being discovered in this and other solar systems.

    In a 2000 paper, Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. Hal Levison distinguish two types of planets—the gravitationally dominant ones and the smaller ones that are not gravitationally dominant. However, they never say that objects in the latter category are not planets.

    I attended the Great Planet Debate, which actually took place in August 2008, and there was a strong consensus there that a broader, more encompassing planet definition is needed. I encourage anyone interested to listen to and view the conference proceedings at You can also read more about this issue on my blog at

    You can find the petition of astronomers who rejected the demotion of Pluto here:

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