In what has to be one of the largest annexation attempts in history, voters will go to the polls tomorrow to decide whether or not to add a vast area of undeveloped open space to what is already a neighborhood out of control. When will it stop? When will these brazen attempts to disrupt our collective comfort zone come to an end?
This current brouhaha began, for the most part, back in January of 2005 when a trio of astronomers from Mount Palomar Observatory in California finally got around to checking out some photos taken back in October of 2003. What they discovered was a trans-Neptunian object — don’t you just love it when they talk that way? — that was larger than the "planet" Pluto.
Displaying a sense of romantic mythology heretofore unknown among their ilk, they named their newborn "2003 UB313." Now, that in itself would have been OK had they not begun to also refer to it as our solar system’s "10th planet." Obviously these guys are "Pluto lovers!"
This is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to the call by many over the years to demote Pluto from "planethood." And their end run to keep Pluto "in the pale," as it were, appears to have succeeded. By stirring things up down at the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a new definition of "planet" may well loom on the horizon.
Tomorrow, a "draft definition" meant to define the term "planet" more precisely will be submitted by a "draft committee" to the General Assembly of the IAU currently gathered in Prague. It seems obvious that the assembled scientists would much rather be talking astronomy over shots of Slibovitz or Absinthe than arriving at a consensus as to what a planet is or isn’t.
If the truth were known, for the most part the 2,500 astronomers from 75 countries could care less. It’s doubtful that the term "planet" ever arises in their conversations. It’s us, the general public, that is all worked up over this issue. Actually, not much excites me more than members of my species frothing at the mouth over anything "scientific."
So, here’s the deal. Both Pluto and 2003 UB313 are way smaller and way further away from the sun than the other eight members of the solar system. Those who would remove Pluto from the planetary rolls see it as belonging to another category altogether. It’s from the wrong side of the tracks — the "Kuiper Belt."
As everyone knows, the inner part of our solar system features four terrestrial planets orbiting the sun. These are for the most part solid bodies, like Gibson Les Pauls or Fender Stratocasters. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars have paid their dues. They belong.
Outside the orbit of Mars is the "Asteroid Belt." One should never visit this neighborhood after dark. You wanna talk "chaos theory?" Not only are the streetlights not synchronized, but it’s also almost impossible to locate a decent saloon or independent bookstore or rugby match.
Then come Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, collectively known as the "gas giants." They are huge, and if the telemetry coming in from Jupiter is even remotely accurate, quite flatulent – a little known fact that might explain why Pluto and 2003 UB313 are keeping their distance.
Which brings us back to the Kuiper Belt and that eternal darkness at the edge of town. Light, except in a covert "superstring" sense, has yet to arrive in these parts. It may well be on its way, but most likely it missed its connecting flight. And the bull-goose-blob in this vast swarm of blobs? None other than our old buddy Pluto.
So here are the options the IAU is trying to sort out tomorrow in Prague. They could take the quickest — if not the easiest — way out and simply admit that they made a mistake in 1930 when they categorized Pluto as a planet. With the discovery of 2003 UB313, it’s not even the toughest kid on its block. And then there is its eccentric orbit. Let’s not even go there.
Another option would be for them to maintain the status quo and walk away from all the hoopla with the nine-planet configuration intact. This is not a very popular notion. Most see it as sending a mixed message concerning whether or not there is anything left to discover within the total body of objects orbiting the sun.
The IAU could also create a 10-planet system by stating that Pluto and anything larger (2003 UB313, for example) are planets. Now, while this is quite popular among people on the street, odds are against it, as they say in that other dark place, getting out of committee. It "lacks science," so to speak.
Then there is the fourth solution, the one the IAU committee proposed for its general assembly to vote on tomorrow, the one that would involve the annexation of untold cubic parsecs of undeveloped open-space, the one some call the "leave no ice ball behind" option.
This alternative would solve the "Pluto problem" by making size less of a significant factor when determining whether an object within the solar system is "planet-worthy." And it would employ "scientific basis." If the object is large enough to have a "self-gravity" sufficient to make it "round," well there you have it, it’s a planet. Unless it’s a moon, of course.
This is where the blatant land grab comes in. The asteroid "Ceres," which was once a planet prior to getting demoted back in the day, would probably go No. 1 in the draft. Then would come the hundred or more round objects currently identified in the Kuiper Belt. And in this promotion-rich scheme, no one would have to be demoted.
Plus, it also defines, if not solves, my problem. I’m round due to self-gravity. Who’da thunkit? Yesterday I couldn’t even construe a planet. Now I are one.
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Tom Kelly spent a day at Woodward Park City with snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones. He didn’t hit any rail boxes — this time — but left wanting to change that by the time the season ends.