Ads the Worlds Turn

Adding_ or, gasp! subtracting _ planets could have universal impact

August 23, 2006|By TOM DUNKEL | TOM DUNKEL,SUN REPORTER

Our sidewalk dodged a bullet," chuckles Harvey Leifert, spokesman for the American Geophysical Union, offering his take on the great solar system shake-up of 2006.

When the Washington-based nonprofit built its headquarters about a decade ago, someone got the idea to dress up the sidewalk out front with inlaid bronze markers representing the planets, that beloved gang of nine: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

But right now, more than a thousand of Earth's most pre-eminent stargazers are gathered in Prague, Czech Republic, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union. They're debating whether oddball Pluto (the smallest planet, most distant from the sun, the one trapped in a misshapen orbit that takes 247 years per revolution) should be booted from the club. A vote is scheduled for tomorrow.

The good news is that the American Geophysical Union probably won't have to rip up its sidewalk: The "Planet Definition Committee" has recommended Pluto not be busted to (oh, the shame!) asteroid status.

The bad news is the American Geophysical Union may have to buy more bronze markers: That same committee is calling for the addition of three new planets, plus seeking to put another dozen candidates on a watch list -- with the possibility of many more to come.

If the final vote goes in favor of the committee's recommendation, pretty soon any heavenly body that's big, round and circles a star (but isn't one of Madonna's bodyguards) stands a good chance of becoming a planet.

The change is technology-driven. As radio telescopes peer deeper into space, as unmanned probes push farther into the unknown, scientists are pulling back the curtain on those beyond-Pluto nooks of the solar system. They're turning out to be more densely populated than almost everyone imagined.

The detritus of creation is out there swirling in the void. Hundreds of thousands of objects elbow for room in a stretch of nothingness known as the Kuiper Belt; even more flotsam pinballs around the hazy domain of the remote Oort Cloud.

It's easy to wrap one's mind around the concept of nine billiard-ball-like planets locked in an eternal dance with the sun. But potentially dozens of new planets? That's a jolt; like suddenly being informed a favorite fairy tale has been updated and retitled Snow White and the Twenty-Seven Dwarfs.

Millions of textbooks are on the verge of requiring major revision. Julia Osborne, science editorial director for scholastic publisher Pearson Prentice Hall, says breaking-news changes will be posted on the company's "Planet Diary" Web site and printed in supplemental inserts, then formally phased in as hardback editions are scheduled for updating. That can take time. North Carolina, for example, isn't due to purchase new science textbooks until 2010.

"I have three editors that are really rabid about this. There are people that are really excited," says Osborne. "It'll be a great way to start the [school] year. `Science is always the same.' No, it's changing! This is an opportunity for teachers to present that excitement."

It isn't, however, much of an opportunity for making windfall profits. As Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, says, "The people who make money are the people who make T-shirts. It's certainly not textbook publishers."

Leifert is pleasantly surprised at the buzz being generated by the deliberations in Europe: front-page news articles, is-Pluto-a-planet? polls, online news group chatter. But he's not sure about the cause of it: "You'll have to talk to a psychologist about that."

Or maybe amateur astronomers.

The Howard Astronomical League holds monthly meetings at the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks building in Columbia. About 40 people showed up Thursday night.

Most of them are aware the Pluto controversy has been bubbling nearly 20 years. Most also know the high priests in Prague have proposed a King Solomonesque classification system: Eight original planets will be designated "classical" planets, while Pluto becomes the namesake of a new subcategory called "plutons," which include three charter nominees: Ceres, the super asteroid that's wedged between Mars and Jupiter; Charon, Pluto's largest moon; and 2003 UB313 or "Xena," the unofficially named deep-space planet discovered last year.

"It's something of a cultural debate," says Marc Feuerberg, volunteer president of the league and a health policy analyst with the Government Accountability Office. "It's not much of a scientific debate."

Indeed, a computer-animated clip of what the Mars rover landing will look like in 2009 is the hit of the meeting, eliciting an enthusiastic round of applause. But members also discuss planet-definition developments. Bob Chapman, a retired Honeywell International astronomer, doesn't like the notion of elevating Ceres to a planet.

"Let's keep it an asteroid," he says. "On the other hand, I like the idea of a pluton."

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