Pluto ‘to lose planet status’

Pluto imaged by the Hubble Space TelescopePluto faces being evicted from the solar system in a Big Brother-style vote by the world’s leading astronomers.

Patrick Moore told me he is backing the monumental decision which will see the number of planets cut from nine to eight.

A committee of expert scientists is set to give distant Pluto the boot by stripping it of its status as a planet. Instead the celestial vagabond will be downgraded and reclassified as just one of a myriad of icy objects wandering far from the sun.

A final decision will be made by space science’s governing body, the International Astronomical Union, at a conference in Prague. But TV star Patrick Moore agrees Pluto should be relegated to the lower divisions. He said yesterday: “Pluto isn’t a planet – it’s as simple as that.”

Pluto was discovered in 1930, bringing the known number of planets to nine. It was actually named by an English girl, Venetia Burney.

But the cat has been put among the pigeons by the recent discovery of other celestial bodies beyond Neptune. They have been labelled Kuiper Belt Objects and are thought to be part of a vast belt of icy debris on the fringes of the solar system.

The largest so far found, which has been nicknamed Xena, is 1,500 miles across – 70 miles wider than Pluto. So astronomers are being forced to decide whether to call them planets too or change Pluto’s status.

Patrick, presenter of BBC TV’s long-running show The Sky at Night, said: “Recently, about 15 other objects have been discovered and at least two are bigger than Pluto. There must be stacks more lurking out there. Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, was a friend of mine and invited me to write a book about it with him.

“It will be sad to see it relegated but it is just a question of scientific sense. Pluto is a Kuiper Belt Object. It means there will only be eight planets – but there is always the chance we will find another real planet out there again one day.”

The IAU committee that has been charged with defining Pluto’s status is led by Professor Iwan Williams, of Queen Mary University of London. They have been tight-lipped about their deliberations but will announce their recommendations on Wednesday. Astronomers will debate the issue on Tuesday next week and take a final vote two days later.

The photo shows Pluto imaged by Hubble in 1995.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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