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Plutonic Love Fades

October 12, 2002

Poor besotted Pluto--the planet, not Mickey's dog.

In case you haven't paid close attention to the distant reaches of our corner of space, after 72 years of distinction as the outermost planet in our solar system, that lumbering hunk of ice and rock that hasn't completed one single solar orbit since the American Revolution may not be a planet anymore. Not that such a decision down here would alter the minus-400-degree temperature out there. But a growing number of experts are facing the reality of advancing technology and the new discoveries it delivers. They're tentatively suggesting to Pluto's ardent supporters that just maybe, perhaps, Pluto with a 1,413-mile diameter is really just a large object.

What?! you say. When you memorized the planets in school, there were nine starting with Mercury and ending with Pluto, the second-funniest planetary name. What's changed? And who on Earth presumes to appoint themselves Official Namers of Heavenly Bodies That Have Been Around Even Longer Than Bob Hope?

They're not making new planets and moons. We're finding them. And the debate about re-categorizing something nearly 4 billion miles away (that's 32 million trips between L.A. and San Diego) is a revealing measure of changes close to home. When Clyde Tombaugh's eye became the first to look upon Pluto in 1930, from Arizona, the world was still pretty darned excited about a little airplane from St. Louis flying all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Today, humans orbit Earth, dispatch off-road robots to roam other worlds and peer through computerized telescopes at places and things once only hypothesized.

They find that good old Pluto is barely two-thirds the size of Earth's moon. It's mainly frozen methane, more of a comet, to be blunt. And anyway, Pluto's not alone way out there--at least 600 other large objects, maybe even 60,000, orbit in the same neighborhood. This week scientists announced finding another beyond Pluto. Named Quaoar, it takes 288 Earth years to circle the sun once. Now, that's a trip. Quaoar (KWA-wahr) is named for a god, like Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto (a.k.a. Hades) and Uranus, Saturn's dad. Tradition dictates using gods' names; with mounting discoveries, they'll need a lot of them.

Obviously, astronomers pick these sacred-space monikers to show off their intelligence, and then a special International Astronomical Union committee approves them. "We have a lot of fun with this stuff," admits Brian Marsden, a union director whose mother did not name him for anyone in particular but always said she'd have called him Daphne had he been a she.

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