Why is Pluto No Longer a Planet?

For as long as I could remember, Pluto was the distant planet at the end of our solar system.

There never was a doubt in my mind that Pluto was not really a planet, but apparently it was recently debunked as an official planet.  Let’s start off by looking into some history of Pluto.

Pluto was first identified in 1930 by an astronomer that went by the name Clyde W. Tombaugh who was given the daunting task of trying to validate and discover what was at that time called Planet X.

Tombaugh had to compare plates and isolate the differences between planets and comets between the pictures.  It took him about a year before he was able to identify his discovery of Planet X and validate it.

After discovery, the name was chosen by a child in Oxford England and since then the Planet X would forever be called Pluto…or so we thought.  The identifying and naming of Pluto completed our solar system as having 9 district planets.

In 1978, astronomers where finally able to determine the planets mass by discovering its largest moon in orbit called Charon.  Pluto came in at a whopping 1500 miles in diameter, truly the smallest planet in the solar system!

With the advancement of technology came powerful observatories both on the ground and in space.  These observatories helped to change how we see outer space and more specifically our Solar System.

This new technology is the very thing that caused the deplaneting of Pluto and discovery of a bunch of orbiting objects known as the Kuiper Belt.  These frozen space objects, about 70K in total, are all very similar to Pluto and float out as an extension of the Neptune.  The discovery of these space objects is what classified Pluto as part of the Kuiper Belt instead of an actual planet.

As astronomers continued to identify large objects in the Kuiper Belt, none where quite the size of Pluto, until 2005 when a discovery was made it was an object with more mass than Pluto called Eris.

The eye opening event led the astronomers to vote and decide the definitions of what a planet is and hence the name dwarf planet was created.  Both Pluto and Eris fall into the category of a dwarf planet.

To this day there are still discussions on whether demoting Pluto was the right thing to do.

As with all things science, evolving and redefining is a way of life and the same goes for astronomy!

For more information, watch this video:

Water Eruptions on Europa

Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center
Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

A second confirmation of massive plumes of water being sprayed possibly more than 100 miles from the moon’s surface has all but confirmed that a probe mission to the celestial body should be launched.

Europa is known to have an ocean twice the size of earth’s regarding the amount of water contained therein but said a sheet of ice covers the sea.

Because this ice is a barrier that could be kilometers thick, obtaining a sample of this liquid would mean drilling into and through this barrier.

However, with the discovery of these massive plumes of water being forced from the subterranean sea, a probe could make several passes and potentially gather samples before Europa’s gravity pulled the moisture back down onto the moon’s surface.

This discovery could lead to several revelations about the moon’s current physicality and how it came to be in the state that it is in a much less theoretical way.

For example, if these plumes of water have been happening for millions of years, we would know exactly how Europa’s ice layer was formed that now cover its massive ocean.

These eruptions would give us accurate data on the composition of this ice-locked ocean, including whether or not it contains signs of life (which of course, everyone wants to hope for).

Another thing this discovery proves is that our solar system, at least within our Milky Way galaxy, is even more unique than we have ever hoped to believe! The existence of liquid water in our universe is thought to be very rare within the billions of star system around us, a fact that is exciting for several reasons.

One of the most compelling reasons (potentially) is that many astronomers believe that if intelligent extra-solar or extra-galactic life exists and is capable of interstellar travel, a planet (or the moon in Europa’s case) would be a prime reason for them to come to our solar system.

The plumes of water rising out of and above Europa’s could be attractive to more than just us!

Proxima Centauri b: A Potential Extra-Solar Home?

As an astronomy student and lover of science fiction, Proxima Centauri b is a planet that continues to excite me!  (If you missed it, don’t forget to read about the Red Planet in last weeks blog)

PCb (as I will call it for ease of use for the rest of this post) is the nearest, potentially habitable extra-solar planet in our galaxy.

There are many things that make PCb an interesting place, a few of which are:

Temperature- The estimated surface temp of PCb is around 234 Kelvin (or −39 °C; −38 °F, roughly), and while dangerously cold (again, potentially) isn’t uninhabitable by us mammals. Our current technology allows for habitation in the coldest parts of our little blue planet (Ellesmere Island in extreme northern Canada hits 234 Kelvin on a fairly regular basis in the winter, cold, but not impossible).

Perpetual Twilight: Because PCb’s red dwarf star, Proxima Centauri, is much less bright than our own, the planet never reaches the same levels of what we call “daylight.” While this would have a dramatic effect on solar power (rendering it all but useless currently) as well as the idea of growing plants, it could also mean that if the planet hosts a hospitable atmosphere and or magnetic field to shield it from radiation. The effects of solar radiation on life there could be dramatically less than that of earth.

Proximity: The distance from earth to PCb is a mere 4.2 light years away. While this is still seen as very far away given our current technology, advances in space propulsion technology make this trip a theoretical century long vs the much longer commute thought to be necessary in decades’ past. The research involving EM drive technology is incredibly exciting, especially when combination with recent earth exit propulsion strides that make regular and cost effective trips to the moon imminent in the next 10 years or so! With the right funding and opportunity to further space travel as it relates to deep space sojourns, we could establish a halfway point way station of sorts to make the trip to PCb even easier.

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The Wonders of the Red Planet

Have you seen the most recent pics from the Curiosity Mars Rover? Amazing doesn’t even begin to cover the pics we have been getting lately!


Some of the best pics we have received are those of the Mount Sharp area, which are pictures that show multiple layers of rock and a lakebed that is sedimentary. The lakebed itself (of course) is evidence of a large body of liquid that dominated the region billions of years ago.

To be more specific, based on the sediment and surrounding rock layers, scientist believe that Mars featured rivers and lakes somewhere between 3.3 and 3,8 billion years before Curiosity touched down.

The evidence of rock formations carved out by liquid (and I use the term liquid because, as we know, rivers and lakes can be composed of more than our native h20) and the sediment in the areas stimulate the imagination.

Did Mars have life forms dependent on the rivers and lakes, or organisms that lived within them, before a climate shift made life on Mars impossible?

What does the red planet have to show us about our own world’s cosmological development in comparison?

The most recent pictures show us Mount Sharp and the surrounding area in some stellar (sorry, astronomer humor) panoramic views that are reminiscent of some of the dessert areas on our own little blue sphere.

As Curiosity continues it exploratory mission (which is now in its fourth year) the rover will drill for more samples and make its way and south, with a path that will gain altitude as it climbs Mount Sharp.

Author’s Final Thought Provoking Question: Do you think that our knowledge of Mars should in some way affect our thinking about global warming on Earth?