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Planet Rodney Dangerfield: Pluto Gets Dissed

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They have to cut five minutes out of Gustav Holst now.

We lost a planet from our solar system this week and it couldn’t get Jon Benet Ramsey off the front page. Talk about lack of respect for a celestial body! I grew up being told that there were nine planets in the solar system. It wasn’t as big a deal as knowing all fifty states and their capitals, but it was very high on any educator’s list of basic facts that most students should know back then. If you could name the planets in order from Mercury, which was closest to the sun, out to Pluto, you were really doing well. If you could name all the moons, of which Pluto has three so far, you were into serious geekhood.

Pluto, which was “discovered” in 1930, was so much a part of our culture that Mickey Mouse (a creation of the '30s himself) had a dog named for the ninth planet. I never did figure out why Goofy, also a dog, happened to be Mickey’s pal and knew how to talk , but Mickey kept Pluto as a pet. I guess that might have been the first hint that the outermost outer planet might not be long for our world.

No, Osama did not build a suitcase bomb and blow up the smallest planet into asteroids. Back in the 1800s, Ceres, the largest asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter had status as a planet, too. Ceres, which is even smaller than Pluto had the misfortune of being the largest object among thousands circling the sun. Not long after its discovery, Ceres got demoted to asteroid status for about a hundred and fifty years until some astronomers decided to try to bring it up to the majors again in 2001 along with a big icy object with the unromantic label UB 313. Instead of promoting Ceres, the association tightened their definition of planet and wound up creating this whole bogus category — “the dwarf planet”.

Basically Ceres got brought up out of the asteroid league and poor Pluto got sent down in the process to join Ceres and UB 313 as part of the dwarf division. To add insult to injury, Pluto’s largest moon, Chiron, which is almost as big as Pluto itself (with two objects, how the heck do you tell which is orbiting which?) also got bumped into dwarfdom.

To have your own moon catch up with you has to be the ultimate in being dissed if you’ve gotten used to being a planet. One could, however, look at it another way. While Pluto was a planet for seventy-five of our years, in Pluto time it was like a third of a year, so maybe they never got all that used to being a planet anyway. Football season’s not even gotten to the playoffs on Pluto. This was one place in the solar system where that whole compound interest thing totally sucked.

Aside from being a serious insult to dwarves or little people, I’m wondering what the Hades this means? Does this mean Pluto can’t get into galactic bars now? Did Pluto lose its right to vote in interplanetary elections? And how can you have moons and still not be a planet? I just never thought astronomers were exactly the sort of guys and (girls) who whispered, “Well, to tell you the truth, size does matter.”

Actually, that isn’t quite true — they say it’s not the size, but how it orbits. See, there are always other ways to please astronomers. For about 20 earth years out of 229, it crosses into Neptune’s orbit. In the old days, all you had to be was a big rock orbiting the sun. Now, they’ve got all these requirements — you have to orbit, be round, win the swimsuit and talent competitions. In the meantime, apparently Pluto’s stopped speaking to Neptune entirely, which is very sad given that we might not even know about Pluto had it not been for Neptune.

If you don’t know the story, Neptune was the first planet discovered by implication instead of visual observation. Although the three-body gravitational problem remains something of a mystery, Neptune’s existence was predicted because Johanne Gottfried Galle found eccentricities in Uranus’s orbit. I can just see al the scientists giggling, “There’s something weird about Uranus. Eeewww!”

In turn, they soon figured out that Neptune moved funny too, and people started looking for Pluto. I’m still thinking about how this is going to mess up all those astrologers. It just doesn’t sound the same to get told that your moon is in dwarf planet. Anyway, Clyde Tombaugh started doing time lapse photographs looking for the planet implied by Uranus and became the first American to get credit for discovering a planet in 1930. The only problem was that Pluto was much too small to be the missing planet. When I was a kid, no one knew how big Pluto actually was. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they figured out for sure that it was the smallest “planet” in the solar system and the one furthest from the sun. Talk about your runt complex. Anyway, now that the drug testing's done on Pluto, Tombaugh is just the first American to discover a dwarf planet. Even more amazing, Tombaugh’s widow is still alive. Now the lady can’t get into her local observatory without a reservation anymore.

What if there turns out to be intelligent life on Pluto? Are we going to have to say,”Sorry we can’t get excited about you guys because you’re not from a real planet?”

Of course, the beings of Pluto, who maybe really do look like Mickey Mouse’s dog, could come back at us and say “You know what? We’ve been watching you longer than you’ve been watching us and Earth doesn’t count because you don’t have real intelligent life, just some sort of dwarf intellect. Give it another couple years and do what you’re doing and there’s going to be an asteroid belt between Venus and Mars and you want even be a dwarf planet, you’ll be like blastocyst planet. Woof, woof.”

In the meantime, can you imagine all the lawsuits now? There are now all these kids who got a C in science because they could only name eight planets and then didn’t get into the college of their choice. Not only that, the outer edge of our solar system just shrunk by several million miles. They must be in a frenzy at the interplanetary title company.

What next? Someone’s going to tell me that the United States isn’t a democracy any longer?

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About Chancelucky

  • Since this is satire I won’t get too picky about proofreading every detail, but there is one old grudge of mine you’ve touched upon, an error I can’t leave unchallenged.

    For years now it’s grated on me whenever people talked about using the orbit of Pluto as the boundary of our solar system. Even before we had telescopes that could see them, we’ve known there were vast numbers of objects far out beyond Pluto, many of them likely to contain precious resources such as water and metals. It makes no sense to draw our boundary line at the orbit of the outermost major planet, whether we consider that line to be Pluto’s orbit or Neptune’s.

    All the objects orbiting our Sun should be considered part of our solar system. The resources they can provide may be crucial to our future as a spacefaring species. Even if that future seems distant now, we can still prepare the foundations of our cultural claim to the resources in the Kuiper belt and the Oort Cloud.

    Okay, I’ve made my point now, so I won’t rant any longer about this.

  • Victor,
    feel free to get picky. I’m fine with your point and it makes perfect sense to me. I assume the real outer boundary of the solar system is just whatevere the outermost object that happens to orbit the sun turns out to be. I just couldn’t resist the joke based on the lay notion of where the solar system begins and ends.

    I suppose though if they can recategorize Pluto and Ceres, they can also might choose to redefine the boundaries of the solar system.

    In the meantime, feel free to let me know about corrections. I’m not an astronomer nor do I play one on blog critics.

  • I’m not sure the outer boundary of the solar system is best defined by any object’s orbit, Chancelucky. Certainly any object orbiting the sun should be inside whatever boundary we end up defining, but the actual objects at that distance are distributed too randomly and have orbits too eccentric for them to serve as boundary markers.

    Some limit based on the sun’s gravity well might be better. The region we mark out that way would be the region where any object could orbit the sun, even if none are actually in such orbits at any given moment.

    As for your invitation to get picky about the details of your article, I’ll just point out two things for now. First, Pluto’s largest moon Charon is not currently being promoted to any special status. Early drafts of the resolution mentioned that idea, but it was taken out of the final resolution actually passed by the International Astronomical Union.

    Second, Gustav Holst finished composing The Planets in 1916 and it was first performed in 1920. As you mentioned, Pluto was not discovered until 1930, so Holst’s composition never contained any movement named after Pluto.

    I’m not an astronomer either, but I’ve always been interested in space exploration and always been fascinated by many of its details. That’s why certain facts tend to stand out when I read commentary articles on the subject.

  • Victor,
    thanks for the clarification. Yes, the Holst was just a joke since he clearly didn’t include Pluto as a planet in the suite. Also I did fudge a little on Charon’s getting “promoted”, for the sake of the joke. I did know that it had been discussed.

    I guess you’re the one to ask. At some point, the sun’s gravity becomes pretty minimal, but I would assume the ability of a body to stay in orbit is something of a function of speed, distance,the mass of the object, and the eccentricity of the orbit. I’m pushing the level of my physics, but an object in a stable orbit moving very fast can maintain “orbit” buch better than one moving more slowly.

    I would assume that someone could calculate that.
    Actually, for me, the really interesting object in the recent congress was UB 313.

  • Using the sun’s gravity well to define the boundaries of the solar system might not be best option, either. It’s just one suggestion, and one that would take quite a bit more work to fully define.

    Another possibility would be the heliopause, where the solar wind gives way to the more diffuse gaseous particles of the interstellar medium. Wikipedia has some good illustrations of how big this region might be.

    The heliopause is about 76 times more distant from the Sun than our Earth’s orbit. This boundary would include most of the Kuiper belt objects, so I like it much better than using Neptune’s orbit. However, it would leave out much of the region called the “scattered disk,” including the region where UB 313 (“Xena”) spends a good deal of its time. The heliopause boundary also leaves out all of the Oort cloud, so I don’t really like it enough to fully support it. That’s why I suggested the solar gravity well instead.

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean about the relationship between moving fast and the stability of an orbit, so I won’t try to respond to that just yet.

  • Scott Butki

    Good piece.
    I didn’t read this until now but I see we both used Rodney Dangerfield references in our pieces on Pluto.

  • Thanks Scott….
    I enjoyed your Pluto post as well. Does this make us like the Newton and Leibniz of solar system comedy?

  • Scott Butki

    I think we’re like the two guys who got the Nobel prize for DNA.
    Or Martin and Lewis.

    One of them duos.