My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Up Nine Pizzas … and a Xylophone. Children around the world might be reciting this new phrase soon as a way to remember the name of the 10th planet, Xena. Yes, you read correctly – 10 planets! Last July, an object was discovered beyond Pluto that could be deemed the 10th planet (and it’s nicknamed Xena).
Let’s get it straight though, the International Astronomical Union does not want everyone thinking the new planet is going to be named after WB’s warrior princess. It is merely an interdepartmental nickname. The object is temporarily being called 2003 UB313 until an official name can be decided.
However, this planetary shakeup isn’t all that’s going on in our galaxy these days. For more than a year, members of the IAU have been debating the expansion of the term “planet” into more specific classifications such as “terrestrial planet” and “trans-Neptunian planet.”
And if two weren’t enough, here’s another curveball: the committee is still investigating into whether or not Pluto is a full-fledged planet. Experts say it’s too small and since it orbits with the Kuiper Belt, a known grouping of comets, it could be an oversized comet instead of a planet. So, even if Xena does get the planetary stamp of approval, it might be ranked as the ninth planet if Pluto is demoted from “planet” to “big rock.”
Confused? So are the astronomers.
This planetary confusion has the power to alter the way the public views outer space. If planets are going to be categorized as “major” and “minor,” it will change each planet’s level of importance. Presently, there is no hierarchy; but if Pluto becomes a minor planet and Jupiter a major, Jupiter will be considered more important. What if Earth were to be deemed minor (even though astronomers would be too pompous to do that)? What then would be our definition of a planet?
Initially, someone might think, ‘Why the fuss? No one cares about space, anyway?’ True, it seems that no one cares, but space has become so integrated into our society that if it endured a major change, we would notice it. Countless numbers of educational folders, notebooks, organizers and pamphlets exist that list the planets for child learning. The planets are even honored on postage stamps. Our culture has embraced Pluto as a planet. If it were to be deemed nothing but a comet, it would undermine decades of astronomical learning.
Astronomers have in their hands the possible crowning of a new planet, the pink slip to fire one and a categorization scramble. While they don’t have a clear idea of what to make of our galaxy, this imbalance could eventually discredit astronomy in the public eye.