An orb by any other name: Debate over what constitutes a planet is far from settled

Press Release From: University of California Berkeley
Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2003

BERKELEY -- Ask any kid how many planets are in our solar
system, and you'll get a firm answer: nine.

But knock on a few doors in Berkeley's astronomy
department, and you'll hear, amid the hemming and hawing,
a whole range of numbers.

Professor Gibor Basri, who plans soon to propose a formal definition of a planet to the international body that names astronomical objects, argues that there are at least 14 planets, and perhaps as many as 20. To the well-known list of nine he adds several large asteroids and more distant objects from the rocky swarm called the Kuiper Belt circling beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Professor Imke de Pater and Assistant Professor Eugene Chiang, on the other hand, toss out Pluto without a backward glance. It's just a big rock, they say, a former member of the Kuiper Belt, puppy-dogging Neptune around the solar system.

Not so fast, says Professor Alex Filippenko. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which rules on names for astronomical bodies, has officially said that Pluto remains a planet, at least for the time being. Thus, officially, there are nine. He cavils a bit, however, making it clear to his students that Pluto is "more fundamentally a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), though an unusually large one."

Professor Geoffrey Marcy and research astronomer Debra Fischer, both "planet hunters" within the department, also prefer to keep the number at nine, noting that the sun, though it probably had 12 or 14 planets in the past, will in five billion years probably lose Mercury and Pluto, bringing the count down to seven.

Moons, fusors, brown dwarfs

This difference of opinion within the astronomy department is part of a larger debate in the astronomical community over what constitutes a planet. It provides endless hours of beer-hall debate and Friday-afternoon tea-time chat, with little hope for resolution in the near future.

"It's something of an embarrassment that we currently have no definition of what a planet is," Basri said. "People like to classify things. We live on a planet; it would be nice to know what that was."

The IAU has sidestepped any formal definition, largely, Basri says, because a good definition would eject Pluto from the list and relegate it to a "minor planet" or, even worse, a comet. Basri has come up with a definition that keeps Pluto in the fold, but necessarily brings in other objects that until now have not been considered planets -- objects with names such as Vesta, Pallas and Ceres, now considered asteroids, or KBOs such as Varuna.

He's now preparing a formal definition to put before the IAU Working Group on Extra-Solar Planets, and has posted an article on his Web site that lays out his definition and arguments as to why it should be adopted.

"By 10 years from now, I'd be a little surprised if the IAU had not adopted something along the lines I'm proposing," Basri said. "It's reasonable."

Most astronomers and the IAU agree that planets should be orbiting a star -- or more precisely, an object that is big enough to ignite hydrogen fusion in its core (what Basri calls a fusor). The IAU Working Group also excludes anything, like a star, that is big enough to manage core fusion itself. The consensus thus excludes moons, even those such as Ganymede, which is almost as large as Mars but which happens to be orbiting the planet Jupiter rather than a star.

The definition also excludes failed stars called brown dwarfs, which are too small to be stars but too big to be planets. These are the subjects of Basri's research. In 1995, he was the first to obtain a spectrum confirming that brown dwarfs exist, and he has concentrated on tests that can distinguish brown dwarfs from low-mass stars.

This work naturally led him to focus on mass as a way to distinguish between planets and non-planets. He proposes a natural upper limit for a "planetary mass object" of about 13 times the mass of Jupiter, or about 4,000 Earths. At this size, gravity will cause an object to give off heat, as happens with Jupiter, but the pressure at the core is a bit too cool to fuse the element easiest to fuse, deuterium or heavy hydrogen. Because anything bigger, including stars and brown dwarfs, is able to fuse deuterium, Basri argues that it makes sense to define a "planetary mass object" -- or planemo, as he has dubbed them -- as an object too small to achieve any fusion.

A natural lower limit to the mass of a planemo, Basri says, would be a body large enough for self-gravity to squash it into a round shape. On average, that would be about 700 kilometers in diameter, though that number is squishy -- an iron wrecking ball like Mercury could be smaller and round, while icy planets like Pluto would need to be larger to achieve roundness. This limit excludes all but a few asteroids and KBOs, most of which bear a resemblance to potatoes.

"The upper limit of a planetary mass is the fusion boundary, and the lower limit is roundness," he said. "This definition does not depend on either circumstance or origin."

Basri then throws in the other traditional property of planets to reach a final definition: a planet is a planemo orbiting a fusor.

"If you take this definition," he says, "you don't have any trouble what to call these objects," including many of the new extrasolar planets that Geoff Marcy and Debra Fischer are discovering.

Marcy disagrees. In his search for planets around other stars -- he and his colleagues have found about two-thirds of all known extrasolar planets -- he has come across planet systems that aren't so neat. Two years ago, his team discovered two bodies orbiting the star HD168443 -- one with a mass about 7.6 times that of Jupiter, and one 17 times Jupiter. Basri would call this a planetary system with one large gas planet and one brown dwarf companion -- sort of a failed binary star system, where one "star" wasn't big enough to make the grade.

Talk show host David Letterman, an astronomy buff, quizzed Marcy about these two objects when he was a guest in April 2001. Marcy admitted that the larger of the objects is "so large it doesn't even seem like a planet. We don't know what to call it. Is it a planet? Is it a star? Is it something in between? We're befuddled."

"Well, what the hell are we going to do?" asked Letterman.

"We're screwed," Marcy admitted.

"Run for your life, everybody," Letterman quipped.

Marcy and Fischer believe that consideration should be given to how an object formed, with the name planet reserved for objects forming in accretion disks around a star. In the early dust and gas cloud from which stars form, fluffy dust bunnies coalesce into bigger dust bunnies, until they're big enough for their own gravity to actively sweep in even more stuff. Anything that forms this way around a star should be called a planet, they argue. Stars and brown dwarfs form differently, in the middle of a swirling nebula, thus providing a way to differentiate planets from the rest.

But, Basri counters, "I don't think we should define what an object is based on how it formed, because I don't think we know enough about formation mechanisms, and you can't easily observe how things form."

No one now knows how brown dwarfs form, and to throw a wrench into things, there's some doubt that Jupiter formed the way the other planets did. Asks Basri, not entirely rhetorically: "Is Geoff going to stop calling Jupiter a planet if he discovers it was formed the way a brown dwarf is?"

A taxonomy of planets

Marcy and Fischer believe that assigning a firm definition to planet may also lock astronomers into a taxonomy that will quickly become obsolete as we learn more about the varieties of planets in the galaxy.

"I think any time you try to draw sharp lines you get into trouble," said Fischer. "We should be a lot humbler and say we are calling these things planets because we have this historical precedent, this historical inertia. Let's admit that at either end, the high-mass end and low-mass end, this has been completely arbitrary, and that some things don't fit with our classification scheme."

"It's way too early to define a planet," Marcy said. "No one would have predicted 10 years ago that we'd have any extrasolar planets. Even though we have now found more than 100 of them, these are still the early days in planet hunting."

He anticipates that 70-80 percent of all stars will be found to have planets, most of these in multiple planet systems. And even though no Earth-sized planets have yet been discovered, the Milky Way galaxy could well harbor hundreds of millions of Earths.

"It's a little arrogant, I think, for us to imagine that we understand what the full spectrum is going to shake out to be. Are we really in the ultimate position right now where we should redefine things, because it freezes it in again? In a decade or two it may look incomplete again," Fischer said.

Basri scoffs at these objections. "It's like saying we shouldn't define what a star is until we understand all about star formation and weird binary stars, and so on. If we define a planet based on the basic observable properties of these objects, people can later apply all sorts of adjectives to them as they are understood better, without changing what they are basically talking about."

When Neptune dominates

Imke de Pater, who uses both radio telescopes and optical telescopes to study planets such as Jupiter and Neptune and volcanic activity on Jupiter's moon Io, also thinks that how a body forms should not make a difference in deciding whether a body is a planet.

"I would say a planet is a body in orbit about a star, but not forming part of a larger swarm, like the asteroids in the asteroid belt or the Kuiper Belt Objects," she proposes. "A planet also would have to be in a stable orbit for a few billion years -- it shouldn't be a KBO in transit to becoming a comet."

Eugene Chiang, a new member of Marcy's Center for Integrative Planetary Studies, knows these swarms well. He's part of a national team called the Deep Ecliptic Survey that is scanning the plane of the solar system in search of as many Kuiper Belt Objects as it can find. They've discovered some 250 since 1998, bringing the total known KBOs to about 600, all swarming beyond Neptune's orbit, 30 times farther from the sun than Earth.

Pluto, Chiang notes, is the largest of the Kuiper Belt Objects, and its orbit, like that of all the KBOs, is dominated by Neptune. In fact, it orbits in lock-step with Neptune: Pluto goes around the sun twice for every three Neptune orbits. A large class of such objects in the Kuiper Belt has been dubbed Plutinos because they also inhabit this so-called 3:2 resonance. Of the 100 KBOs that Chiang has tracked well, 25 percent are in resonant orbits with Neptune.

"The asteroid belt is dominated by Jupiter, and the Kuiper Belt is dominated by Neptune," he says, and objects in neither of these belts should be called planets. In fact, because the Kuiper Belt is the source of many short-period comets that plunge through the interior solar system, Pluto could even be called a comet.

Chiang's interest in the KBOs with resonant orbits comes from his theory that planets migrate inward or outward after their initial formation. The many objects in resonant orbits with Neptune argue that it has migrated outward, he says, shepherding the KBOs with it and locking many into resonances. The theory could explain some of the bizarre planetary systems that Marcy, Fischer, Paul Butler and others have found, in which large gas planets seem to be sitting awfully close to their star, in contrast to our own solar system, where the gas giants are far out. Early in a system's history, gravitational interactions between large gas planets and the gaseous disk or small objects called planetesimals can drive planets in or out, he said.

The case for Pluto

None the less, Basri feels that Pluto needs to remain a planet, partly for historical reasons, but primarily because it fits a consistent and reasonable definition of a planetary mass object orbiting a fusor. And if we include Pluto, how can we exclude other Kuiper Belt Objects and asteroids that look almost identical? There's really no difference between Mercury and Ceres, he says, so any consistent definition of a planet would have to include both. He suggests calling the eight undisputed planets "major planets" and the others, including Pluto, "minor planets" -- a usage once applied to the asteroids before their numbers skyrocketed. But they'd all still be planets.

"I've thought about this for two years now, and I think I've seen all the arguments, I've chewed on them for a long time, I've played with them. So I'm ready," he said. "That doesn't mean anyone else is."

Basri's proposed definition means that the number of planets in the solar system will continue to grow as more large objects are discovered in the Kuiper Belt. The Caltech team that discovered the largest known KBO last year -- a body half the diameter of Pluto that they named Quaoar (kwah-o-wahr), after a creation force in California Indian mythology -- estimates that they "should be able to find 5 to 10 more of these really big Kuiper Belt Objects over the next couple of years, including perhaps a couple [of] 'super-Plutos,'" according to their Web site. That means an eventual 25 planets.

Someday kids may be stumping their parents with planet names such as Vesta, Quaoar and Varuna, if not Ixion or Radamanthus. They'll be around for a while -- at least a few billion years -- so you might as well get used to them.

What's in a name? Help us remember

For ages, teachers have been creating mnemonics to help students remember the order of the planets. One well- known version is "My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas." Another variant, mentioned in Robert Heinlein's book "Have Space Suit, Will Travel," goes: "Mother very thoughtfully made a jam sandwich under no protest." (Thoughtfully stands for Terra, Earth's other name.) But with another five (or more) potential planets, it's back to the drawing board. Please send us your mnemonics for the latest solar system lineup: Mercury, Venus, Earth (or Terra), Mars, Vesta, Ceres, Pallas, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Quaoar and Varuna. The best submissions will be featured in a future issue of the NewsCenter,

Related links:

* Gibor Basri's thoughts on defining planets * Geoff Marcy's Web site for extrasolar planets

[NOTE: Images supporting this release are available at ]

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