See Inside January 2007

What Is a Planet?

The controversial new official definition of "planet," which banished Pluto, has its flaws but by and large captures essential scientific principles

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Most of us grew up with the conventional definition of a planet as a body that orbits a star, shines by reflecting the star's light and is larger than an asteroid. Although the definition may not have been very precise, it clearly categorized the bodies we knew at the time. In the 1990s, however, a remarkable series of discoveries made it untenable. Beyond the orbit of Neptune, astronomers found hundreds of icy worlds, some quite large, occupying a doughnut-shaped region called the Kuiper belt. Around scores of other stars, they found other planets, many of whose orbits look nothing like those in our solar system. They discovered brown dwarfs, which blur the distinction between planet and star. And they found planetlike objects drifting alone in the darkness of interstellar space.

These findings ignited a debate about what a planet really is and led to the decision last August by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), astronomers' main professional society, to define a planet as an object that orbits a star, is large enough to have settled into a round shape and, crucially, "has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit." Controversially, the new definition removes Pluto from the list of planets. Some astronomers said they would refuse to use it and organized a protest petition.


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