Most people will probably think of tomorrow as the 5 year anniversary of the demotion of former-planet Pluto. That seems fair; the Pluto demotion got all of the news, caused all of the fights, and promoted all of the discussion. But now that tempers have cooled and the world has come to terms with a new more scientific eight-planet solar system, it is time to remember the other important thing that happened on that day five years ago. On August 24th 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined a new class of objects in the solar system: the dwarf planets.
As you will recall, the IAU declared that planets are the objects which go around the sun and gravitationally dominate their orbits. In our solar system, the eight planets are unique in that behavior. But there are other much smaller bodies out there – Pluto being the most famous – that look like planets (simply meaning that they are round) but are not dominant. Pluto and many of these other objects all circle the sun in similar orbits in what is called the Kuiper belt. These objects are the dwarf planets.
At the time this new class of dwarf planets was proposed, the IAU also declared that three dwarf planets were then known: Ceres (the largest asteroid), Eris (the newly discovered largest Kuiper belt object which precipitated all of this mess), and Pluto. In the entire five years since then, the IAU has declared two other objects to be dwarf planets: Makemake and Haumea.
A reasonable person might think that this means that there are five known objects in the solar system which fit the IAU definition of dwarf planet, but this reasonable person would be nowhere close to correct. By my best estimate there are possibly 390 known dwarf planets in the solar system (don’t worry, I’ll explain below).
What is going on here?