A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Showing posts with label Pluto. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pluto. Show all posts

Free the dwarf planets!

 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?

How big is Pluto, anyway?

These days, a question like that is easy to answer: type it in to Google, click on the Wikipeadia entry, and read the answer: 2306 +/- 20 km. The  +/- (to be read “plus or minus”) is important here: every measurement has limitations and an often critical  part of science is correctly quantifying those limit. The correct interpretation of 2306 +/- 20 km is that 2306 km is the most likely value, but, within a certain range of probability, the value could be as low as 2286 or as high as 2326 km. The value could still be higher or lower, but the probability is small.

So when the occultation of a start by Eris a few weeks ago lasted for such a short period of time that it was clear that Eris could be no larger 2360 km, Pluto was declared, throughout the land, the once-again largest dwarf planet and king of the Kuiper belt. Because, um, 2306 km is greater than 2360 km? [see updated size on Eris, below]

So is Pluto a planet after all?

The news last week that Eris might actually be a tiny bit smaller than Pluto led to the inevitable question: doesn’t this mean that Pluto should be a planet, after all? [update: the final analysis suggests that to the best of our ability to measure Pluto and Eris are the same size. No way to know which is bigger or smaller.]

The simple obvious answer to this question is no. Pluto was not demoted in 2006 simply because it was no longer the largest known object beyond Neptune, but because it was one of many many such small objects beyond Neptune. The fact that it might still be the largest gives it some bragging rights at the  next dwarf planet convention, but – just like we never considered Eris a planet when we thought it larger than Pluto – being the largest known thing beyond Neptune doesn’t get you an invitation to the planet ball.

Dwarf planets are crazy

[yet another Eridian digression in lieu of continuing the Sedna story. Sorry! Plus this one is written while staying up all night and trying to run a telescope at the same time. Not the best for coherent writing or fixing typos, but I am losing sleep pondering the strange results from last week’s Eris occultation. And I have not been getting enough sleep to be able to afford the loss.]

I’m in Hawaii for a few precious nights to point the Keck telescope – one of the largest in the world – at dwarf planet Eris – one of the largest in the solar system. A week ago I would have just said “the largest in the solar system,” but as of last weekend I’m less sure.

Planetary Placemats

This morning Lilah started asking about Christmas. With her fourth birthday now more than a month behind her it seems to the natural thing to start contemplating. As a warm up, she started trying to remember presents from last Christmas.

“Daddy! Daddy! You gave me those baby scissors!” she exclaimed, running over to her little table sitting in the middle of the kitchen and pulling out a pair of 4-inch miniature yet quite sharp scissors. She uses these most every day, though we almost lost those on a plane ride to Seattle this summer when we unthinking brought them in carry-on. I was both relieved and flabbergasted when the security inspector pulled them out, looked at them, and decided that they were OK to bring aboard.

“But Daddy, where is my mat?”

Mat? Mat? What mat? I thought and thought until I remember, with a little shock, that for my own amusement, I got Lilah a plastic “Nine Planets Placement” for Christmas last year that had nice photos and facts of all nine (ahem) planets. It had gotten shoved under a pile of other placemats in a drawer, but I dug down, pulled it out, and Lilah cheered.

“The planets!” Lilah exclaimed.

“Ugh” I thought.

With the third-year anniversary of the demotion of Pluto having just occurred, I’ve been thinking a lot about planets again (or perhaps I should just say “still”). But rather than worrying about planet classification anymore, which I think is on pretty solid ground these days, I’ve been wondering about the people who simply can’t give up on the concept that Pluto simply has to be a planet. Why are they so attached to the 18th largest object in the solar system when they probably can’t even name all of the 17 larger things? (try this at home: can you without looking it up?)

Lilah’s placemat drove home a likely part of the problem. Most people have absolutely no idea what the solar system actually looks like. They see pictures of planets of placemats, on lunch boxes, on walls at school, but none get the scale of the solar system even remotely correct. Why? First: it’s boring. The solar system is mostly empty space. How much empty space? If you were to draw a top-down view of the solar system from the center out to the edge of the Kuiper belt, it would be 99.999999% (that’s 8 nines, if you’re counting) empty. And 99% of that non-empty fraction is taken by the sun. Making a placemat with that much empty space is pretty dull (though presumably you would save on printing costs). I would show you here what it would look like, except that you would need to view it on a monitor with 12,000 pixels across (about 10 times your typical laptop screen). The sun would occupy only one pixel in the center. You’d see nothing else. If you had grown up with a picture of the real solar system on your placemat, you would be forgiven for thinking the number of planets was precisely zero.

We need a better placemat. What’s the solution? There is no choice except to dispense with trying to depict both the distances between planets and the sizes of planets on the same scale. You can do a little better if you shove the sun almost out of the frame, keep the relative distances between the planets correct, and exaggerate the sizes of planets by a factor of about 8000.

(The Kuiper belt with Eris and Pluto and the rest is really there, way off on the right side. Try squinting.)

This solution still does not make for a great placemat. It’s still mostly empty space, and most things are too small to see well. If Jupiter is going to fit on your placemat at all (and let’s not even talk about the sun), Mercury is going to be so small that it will look like just a tiny dot (and, again, let’s not even talk about Pluto, which is half again smaller). If you had grown up with this placemat you would probably have a lot of respect for Jupiter and Saturn and wonder why everyone made such a big deal about the rest of them.
As a placemat maker, there is one other step you can take while still maintaining scientifically integrity. You can keep the planets in the right order, but give up on showing their true distances from each other. Shoving the planets together a bit more allows them all to be somewhat bigger. Now you can even make out Ceres, the largest asteroid. The band of tiny Kuiper belt objects begins to be visible.

“Alas!” cries the honorable maker of placemats. “How am I to put any artwork on tiny disks that size? What of the canyons on Mars? The scarps of Mercury? The mottled face of Pluto?”

There is a solution, of course. Forgo almost everything. You’ve already had to throw away the correct relative spacings between planets to make the placemat more interesting. Now also throw away the correct relative sizes! Make Jupiter and Saturn significantly smaller, make the tiny tiny terrestrial planets significantly bigger. Grossly exaggerate the size of puny Pluto. This is the perfect solution. This is Lilah’s placemat.

I find this solution perfectly awful.

My objection here is not the inclusion of Pluto as a planet (that’s just anachronistically cute, sort of like ‘here be dragons’ on an old map), my objection is that everything about the solar system is so wrong that of course people are going to be generally confused. How could astronomers possibly vote to get rid of Pluto when there it is, as big as Mercury, nearly as big as the earth itself?

Just how bad is it? If you take Jupiter to be the right size and scale everything from there, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars should be 6,4,4, and 5 times smaller, respectively. The smallest ones, Mercury and Mars, are the most exaggerated.

The giant planets are a bit odd. Saturn is actually 80% too small, presumably because its rings take up too much space to be aesthetically pleasing. Uranus and Neptune are 1.2 and 1.5 times too big, respectively.
And Pluto? It remains the runt even in this solar system, where its size is exaggerated by a factor of 10.
If you grew up with a placemat like this, or a wall poster in your third grade classroom, or a lunch box you carried every day, I now understand why you feel Pluto still deserves to be a planet. It’s because you and I are talking about entirely different solar systems. Even I would agree to Pluto’s special place in the solar system of Lilah’s placemat. Sadly, that solar system and the real solar system have little in common.

I do have a better solution for the placemat makers out there. It keeps the relative sizes of planets correct and keeps their ordering correct, but, like all of the ones above, it has to dispense with the relative spacing between planets. The trick, though, is to pile the planets on top of each other, and to not even show all of the monster Jupiter. You can pack much more into the frame, like this.

There is room on this placemat to put real depictions of the planets. And you can even see many of the dwarf planets out in the Kuiper belt. If you look carefully, you can see the elliptical Haumea and you might even be able to identify a few other of your favorites.

Imagine a world in which this was the image that children – that adults! – had of the solar system. Would we even be having conversations about Pluto’s planethood? It seems pretty unlikely to me. Rather, we would talk of the great difference between giant planets and terrestrial planets, we would talk of the band of asteroids, and we would talk of the ever-increasing number of tiny icy objects out there on the very edge of the solar system. In short, we would talk science rather than definitions. But, occasionally, we would remember the old solar system of our youth and talk nostalgically to our children, and say “when I was your age, Pluto was still a planet” and then, when our child looked up quizzically, we would look down in the corner of the placemat, and try to point out the former planet amongst those many many objects and realize that we had absolutely no idea which tiny point it even was.

Don't try to blame it on Rio

Three years ago, in Prague, astronomers had perhaps the most contentious gathering in modern astronomical history. Usually the International Astronomical Union meeting is nothing but a once-every-three year's chance for astronomers to advertise their latest discovery or newest idea while spending some time in a nice international destination, having dinners with old friends and catching up on their celestial gossip. On the final day of each meeting, in a session attended by almost no one, resolutions are passed, usually all but unanimously, on such pressing topics as the precise definition, to the millisecond, of Barycentric Dynamical Time (I have no idea what this actually even means, but, presumably, it matters critically to someone).
The meeting three years ago was different. The usually placid astronomers had spent their time in Prague arguing and bickering day and night about Pluto and about planets and about how to reconcile the two. While several of the typically unintelligible resolutions were indeed to be voted on this last day, the final two resolutions would be all about Pluto. The usually sparsely attended final session was full of surly astronomers itching for a fight.
Everyone by now knows the outcome. In an overwhelming vote, astronomers agreed to tighten the definition of the word “planet” to mean, essentially, the large dominant things in the solar system. Which Pluto is not. That was the end of Pluto as a planet. That was the end, too, of Eris (the slightly-larger-than-Pluto iceball that I discovered that had precipitated the mess) as a planet.
The solar system makes more sense now, and, in three years most people have come to terms with the new solar system. But not everyone (as an example, read the inevitable comments soon to follow this post….).
Three years ago, when the vote put Pluto into its proper place, some vowed to carry the fight forward. “Onward to Rio!” they cried.
It’s three years later, and it is time, once again, for the Internation Astronomical Union meeting, this time in Rio de Janeiro The meeting. It starts tomorrow and I am currently staring out across Copacabana beach watching the winter waves pound the shore (Winter? Only sort of. The beach is packed and the clothes are skimpy) waiting for the real fireworks to begin.
But will there be any? There is an entire weeklong program called “Icy Bodies in the Solar System” with talks about the Kuiper belt, comets, icy satellites, dwarf planets, and even one talk about Pluto. But nowhere is there slated to be any official discussion about Pluto. Will it happen anyway? Will the partisan defenders of Pluto try to storm the meeting in protest to finally have their day in court?
It would be the right forum, for sure. Because of the special program, many of the astronomers who think deeply about planets and the outer solar system are here. Why not ask?
I predict that by the end of the week, the topic of Pluto and planets will come up, at best, only outside of the actual meeting over a few glasses of caipirhina. I suspect no one will press the fight about Pluto because even the partisans are reluctantly admitting to themselves that the fight is over and planets have won.
After the vote three years ago the Pluto partisans tried every trick and argument they could come up with to convince people that the IAU vote had been ill conceived or procedurally wrong, or poorly attended or anything else. All of that could have been fixed by now and a new vote could be taken. Except that Pluto would lose again. And new excuses would be needed (how about: the moon was full and astronomers became lunatics!).
Will they actually give up? I suspect not. It’s easy enough to keep the controversy alive in the media long after most serious scientists have moved on to better things. But I think the fighting will all be guerilla style these days.
But don’t give up hope! Perhaps something will unexpectedly spill into the open and Rio can turn into a place as fun as Prague. Stay tuned….
For entertainment, and should anyone care, I am (sigh) tweeting the IAU meeting. You can follow me at, appropriately enough, http://twitter.com/plutokiller

The first of the Pluto books!

My preview of the reviews for The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and The Hunt for Planet X: New Worlds and the Fate of Pluto by Govert Schillng is in the September issue of Physics Today.
Or you can read it here.

The occult sciences

Last weekend I had my first experience with the occult sciences.
Maybe I should rephrase that.
Last weekend I did my first occultation science. That’s what I meant.
Occultations are interesting events that can be seen here on earth. They are like miniature total eclipses except that instead of the sun being blocked, it is a star. And instead of the moon doing the blocking it is something else, an asteroid, a planet, a Kuiper belt ice ball. You know an occultation is occurring when a star suddenly disappears and then reappears seconds to minutes later. Something dark must have moved in front of the star.
Scientifically, occultations provide a unique glimpse at the dark object that is passing in front of the star. If you measure how long the star disappears and you know how fast the object was moving, you have just directly measured the size of the object. Or at least measured the size of the object across one line. To really measure the full size of the object you need more than one line. To do that, you station astronomers in something resembling a north-south string over the full expected size of the object. Everyone watches and carefully times the event, and then you combine all of the information to find out the real size and shape of the object. If you’re lucky, you might even detect that the star does not blink out, but fades out, instead. This fading shows the atmosphere of the object. If you’re even luckier, you might see a second disappearance of the star a little before or after the main event. You would have just discovered a moon of your object.
The occultation last week was by a large Kuiper belt object. Kuiper belt objects are so far away and appear so small from our point of view that the probability of one of them covering up a star at any point in time is quite small. Astronomers carefully track these Kuiper belt objects and carefully measure positions of stars over and over in the hopes that one of them will be found to occult.
Sometimes these predictions can be made months ahead of time and astronomers can prepare for the event. Sometimes, like for the one last week, no one knew for sure that the occultation would occur until a last set of careful measurements of the position of the star occurred a few weeks before. Suddenly it appeared that this occultation would be visible across much of North America and that the path would go over some of the major observatories: McDonald, Kitt Peak, Palomar, Lick.
With only two weeks to prepare, though, it is tough to suddenly get a telescope. All of the large telescopes are fully scheduled months in advance, but there sometimes some observatories have smaller telescopes that can be made available at shorter notice if you know the right person.
At Palomar, the right person to know if you want to observer on the brand-new 24-inch robotic telescope is me. I’ve been constructing this new telescope for an embarrassingly long time now, but it is almost finished and ready for real scientific observations. One of its major long-term projects is to monitor Saturn’s moon Titan for signs of major storm activity. But the telescope is still not quite ready yet; we hope to really have it finally commissioned by October.
But when we heard that this occultation was potentially going to be visible from Palomar we decided it was worth going up and trying to use this little telescope even though it was not quite ready.
We arrived Saturday afternoon for the Sunday occultation. Emily Schaller – my now former graduate student (who moved to Hawaii last week to begin a new position as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii) – and I left Pasadena at noon, stopped once for coffee, and arrived at Palomar Observatory at around 3pm. We went right to the small dome of the 24-inch telescope, unlocked the door, and peered inside a bit apprehensively. No one had even been in side for the past few months as we were waiting for the final control systems to be finished. We knew that there was a moderate chance that something would have broken over this time period and the telescope simply would not work. We knew that last winter the dome had leaked. What would we find?
To our relief, everything looked fine. We plugged the telescope and the computer that controls it in and double checked that we could, at least, move things. We could! We set to work to get things going. We had brought some new software up on a laptop to control some important auxiliary functions. But we had forgotten to check if the laptop control ports were compatible with the telescopes, and, of course, they weren’t. We’d have to drive back down the mountain on Sunday to the electronics store and then pray we could get them to work on Sunday.
But still, we could at least try to make sure we could do some basic things, like point to things in the sky.
We did a few daytime pointing tests and, to our sudden horror, realized that the telescope did not move the way it was supposed to. When we said go north, it went south. East was west. Looking carefully through the software we eventually realized that someone the telescope was confused about who it was. It thought it was its [bigger] sister telescope in southern Arizona. Somehow the control software had been switched. The sister telescope had enough different parameters (like which way was east and west) to know that this would never work.
Frustrated, we went to dinner with all of the other astronomers who were at Palomar for the evening, and we brainstormed about how we might fix things. By the end of dinner we had decided that no fix was possible; we needed the right software.
We were in luck, though. Another of my graduate students was awake and looking at her email and realized what we needed and, more importantly, realized where we the software was. We copied it over tested things out, and realized that we were in business.
Because the telescope was not actually ready to be used yet, we had to do some very low-tech things to get it to work right. First, we found nice bright Jupiter up in the sky. Then we used a hand paddle to get the telescope pointing in approximately the right direction. Then I stood up on a ladder, looking down the barrel of the telescope, trying as hard as I could to line up on Jupiter while Emily took continuous pictures with the telescope’s digital camera. We finally meandered around enough that we found it (it helps that Jupiter is so bright that when you get even moderately close to the right place you can see the glow off to one side). Once we were at Jupiter, the telescope was smart enough to know the rest of the sky, so we quickly pressed a few buttons and the telescope automatically slewed to where our occultation was going to be the next night. We weren’t sure how accurate the slew was going to be, but, to our surprise, the star that was going to be occulted was right there in the center just as it was supposed to be. This might work!
We spent the next 2 hours pretending like it was Sunday night and doing exactly what we were going to do that night. Everything worked well except for the occasional problem we had when we forgot that one thing not quite finished yet on the telescope is the dome control software. We had to move the dome by hand to following the moving sky. Sometimes we forgot. We vowed to do better the next night.
The next morning we woke up and drove down to San Diego to pick up some computer equipment. On the drive back up the mountain we looked up at the sky and groaned. Summer thunderstorm clouds had completely covered the sky while we were going. It was possible that they would abate as the sun went down, but they looked pretty bad.
We got back up to the telescope, installed the new equipment, tested it, and realized, again to our thorough surprise, everything was going to work perfectly. Before dinner time, we finally stuck our heads out of the dome to see what the sky looked like. It was hopeless. The sky was 100% covered, and the possibility of observing at all that night seemed very very remote.
We went to dinner in sour moods and lingered over our deserts longer than usual, knowing that looking outside was going to make matters worse.
But we were wrong. When we finally forced ourselves to look, the sky was miraculously clear. Not a single cloud. I have no idea how it so thoroughly cleared itself in under 45 minutes. We ran back to the 24-inch, opened the dome (we had closed it, fearing thunderstorms!), and waited for it to get dark enough to find Jupiter. As soon as it was visible in the twilight glare, we swung the telescope, pointed it up, and punched in the coordinates of the star. Again, on the screen, was just the right field. It looked pretty crummy though; everything seemed too faint. Ah! The dome! We turned the dome in the right direction and everything looked fine.
It was 8:30pm. The occultation was predicted to begin in an hour, so we started acquiring the data, meaning that we took a picture of the star every 4 seconds (which makes many many pictures of the star). At about 9pm clouds suddenly appeared north of where we were, but we quickly realized they were heading even further north. Still safe. At 9:20pm we took one final look outside: not a single cloud. We then crowded in front of the computer screen to watch our pictures come in. At about 9:26 we started thinking that the star was getting fainter. But really? We made some very rough instant measurements and thought: yeah. Maybe. By 9:27 we were sure. Every single image showed the star consistently fainter. It stayed that way for 4 full minutes before getting back to normal bright again. We had seen it! At 9:40pm we sent a quick email to the other astronomers who were observing around the country. The subject line was “Subj: Report from Palomar: We saw it!”
Over the next hour other reports came in. Many observatories were clouded out, but a handful got good data. A quick comparison revealed that Palomar had, I think, been right down the center, giving the longest of all possible occultations. An even more careful look at the data revealed that the occultation was certainly not sudden; we had without a doubt detected an atmosphere around this Kuiper belt object.
We went to sleep, exhausted but thrilled. Heading back we realized that the sky was 100% covered in clouds again. We had just snuck in some clear skies at the right time.
Enough people had collected good data that useful information would come out of these observations. We would get a nice measurement of the atmosphere and whether or not it has changed recently. Looking at the atmosphere was one of the main hopes of the observations. The Kuiper belt object is currently receding from the sun and many astronomers suspect that its atmosphere will soon freeze out. Of course, only the very largest few Kuiper belt objects even have atmospheres, but this one has been known to have had an atmosphere for a while. The Kuiper belt object we were studying was Pluto.