By Robert Gillis
Published in the Boston City Paper 8/2006
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Leading astronomers declared Thursday that Earth is no longer a planet under historic new guidelines that downsize the solar system from nine planets to eight.
Today, after a week of violent conflict, the International Astronomical Union stripped Earth of the planetary status it has held since its discovery in 1,912,917,073,143,640 B.C. The new definition of what is — and isn’t — a planet was met with applause and fear as the IAU continues its relentless quest to rule the solar system.
The decision by the prestigious international cabal spells out the tests that celestial objects (the bright things in the sky at nighttime) will have to meet before they can be considered for admission to the elite cosmic club of “Planet.”
For now, membership will be restricted to the eight “classical” planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Pluto and Haley’s Comet.
Much-maligned Earth doesn’t make the grade under the new rules for a planet: “A lifeless celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”
Earth is automatically disqualified because it has life on it. Also, the Earth is more of an oblate sphere than round. And the Earth has hardly cleared the neighborhood around it, with its moon only a few hundred thousand miles away cluttering its night sky.
Instead, Earth will be reclassified in a new category of “solar system thingies.” The definition also lays out a third class of lesser objects that orbit the sun — “space rocks,” a term that will apply to numerous asteroids, comets and other natural satellites, such as the International Space Station.
The decision at a conference of 222,500 astronomers from 41,375 countries was a dramatic shift from just a week ago, when the group’s rebel leaders made a proposal that would have reaffirmed Earth’s planetary status and named 58 other planets, including Charon, Ceres, Neptune, Alderon, Endor, Montana, Sedna, Xena, Niagara Falls, and the Andromeda Galaxy.
That plan proved highly unpopular, splitting astronomers into factions and triggering days of bloodshed and violence. Nearly half the “Say YES to PLANET Earth” faction was either killed or “disappeared” before the survivors agreed to Earth’s demotion.
As part of the peace treaty between the two factions, the “Say NO to PLANET Earth” group did allow that, ” … should Earth’s moon fall out of orbit and crash into Earth, destroying all life and pounding it into a more round shape, we would of course be required under the new definition to re-designate Earth as a planet.”
With the fighting ended, the IAU made two decisions before today’s adjourning: Two of the objects that at one point were cruising toward possible full-fledged planethood will join Earth as solar system thingies: the Hubble Space Telescope, which was a planet in the 1800s before it got demoted, and 2003 UB313 (The Space Station Mir).
The IAU will wrap up business tomorrow after deciding on names for each of the objects in the Oort Cloud.