Plan Would Add Planets to Solar System

Associated Press Published: August 16, 2006

PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) -- The universe really is expanding - astronomers are proposing to rewrite the textbooks to say that our solar system has 12 planets rather than the nine memorized by generations of schoolchildren.

Much-maligned Pluto would remain a planet - and its largest moon plus two other heavenly bodies would join Earth's neighborhood - under a draft resolution to be formally presented Wednesday to the International Astronomical Union, the arbiter of what is and isn't a planet.

"Yes, Virginia, Pluto is a planet," quipped Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The proposal could change, however: Binzel and the other nearly 2,500 astronomers from 75 nations meeting in Prague to hammer out a universal definition of a planet will hold two brainstorming sessions before they vote on the resolution next week. But the draft comes from the IAU's executive committee, which only submits recommendations likely to get two-thirds approval from the group.

Besides reaffirming the status of puny Pluto - whose detractors insist it shouldn't be a planet at all - the new lineup would include 2003 UB313, the farthest-known object in the solar system and nicknamed Xena; Pluto's largest moon, Charon; and the asteroid Ceres, which was a planet in the 1800s before it got demoted.

The panel also proposed a new category of planets called "plutons," referring to Pluto-like objects that reside in the Kuiper Belt, a mysterious, disc-shaped zone beyond Neptune containing thousands of comets and planetary objects. Pluto itself and two of the potential newcomers - Charon and 2003 UB313 - would be plutons.

Astronomers also were being asked to get rid of the term "minor planets," which long has been used to collectively describe asteroids, comets and other non-planetary objects. Instead, those would become collectively known as "small solar system bodies."

If the resolution is approved, the 12 planets in our solar system listed in order of their proximity to the sun would be Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon, and the provisionally named 2003 UB313. Its discoverer, Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, nicknamed it Xena after the warrior princess of TV fame, but it likely would be rechristened something else later, the panel said.

The galactic shift would force publishers to update encyclopedias and school textbooks, and elementary school teachers to rejigger the planet mobiles hanging from classroom ceilings. Far outside the realm of science, astrologers accustomed to making predictions based on the classic nine might have to tweak their formulas.

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