Wednesday, 19 April 2017

P is for Planet (It's okay, you can call Pluto a planet if you want)

In ancient times, skywatchers noticed certain stars wandered about, and didn't stay fixed like the rest of them. The ancient Greeks called them  πλανῆται (planētai, "wanderers"), and the name stuck. Indeed, if you observe them for several days or weeks, you can notice them inching along relative to the stars in their apparent proximity.

Essentially, a planet orbits a star. All other descriptions are mere refinement.

In 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) issued an updated definition of what a planet is. This came along because more planets had been discovered on beyond Pluto. Once they realised they'd have dozens, potentially hundreds of new planets, they thought they'd come up with some definitions to help sort or categorise the planets. This definition is based off the gravitational interaction of a planet with its environment:

"A planet is a celestial body that:
  1. is in orbit around the Sun, 
  2. has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and 
  3. has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit."
Based on this, we've got four Terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars) and four Gas Giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune).

"But what about Pluto?" you cry! "They demoted it! It's no longer a planet!"

Uh, yes but no. Pluto is still a planet. Go ahead and call it one if you want. It's new classification may be "dwarf planet", but that is still a planet.

Shot this pic of Venus a month ago
with my smartphone thru my telescope.
When I was a wee junior astronomer, I always thought Ceres got a bad rap. It was classified as a planet when discovered in 1801 (yep, it was discovered before Neptune).  Everyone thought this was nifty, until lots of gentleman scientists started discovering more and more rocks. "Surely these cannot all be planets," they mused. Once they figured out just how small and numerous these rocks were, they reclassified them as "asteroids" in the 1850's, and poor Ceres got demoted.  Yeah. These things happen when you start looking and finding stuff.

So, when the 2006 definition came along, Ceres got re-promoted and classified as a planet once more, albeit in the "dwarf planet" category. I didn't mind (Okay, I was ecstatic!). But many people who weren't around for the 1850 demotion of Ceres, didn't realise the historical precedence for this sort of card-shuffling of our Solar System.

Just like in the 1850's, the 2006's brought a new definition of a classification, because lots more of whatever it was they were classifying were found.  Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) were being discovered all the time, and some of them were large enough they could be classified as planets. Also, planets were being discovered around other stars. Everyone went, "That's so cool!" Astronomers went, "Yeah, but we need to sort our rocks."

So the definition was born.

A dwarf planet's not just about size. The only change between the classification of a dwarf planet and a terrestrial planet is that a dwarf planet hasn't cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit. So, Ceres wanders along in the Asteroid Belt and Pluto and Eris and Sedna and company wander about in the Kuiper Belt.  (Trojans don't count, because they're gravitationally shepherded.)

Our Moon, as shot by Your Truly.
Refinement #1:  If an object meets the above criteria, but doesn't clear it's orbit, it's a dwarf planet.

I notice you didn't ask about the Moon (any of them). Couldn't the 2006 planet definition qualify them as well?

Enter Refinement #2: If an object is in orbit around another object, it's a satellite (aka a moon).

Just thought I'd mention this, as we have moons (like Ganymede) that are bigger than Mercury and Pluto. But, as Ganymede and her sisters are in orbit around Jupiter, our Luna (Moon) is in orbit around Earth, and Titan and his mates are in orbit around Saturn, we're calling them satellites.

So, what about rocks that aren't round and aren't orbiting anything else?  We call them Small Solar System Bodies (SSSBs).  These include asteroids, comets, pebbles and anything else with a gravitational connection to the Sun.

So go outside tonight and look up. Can you spot any planets?

Want to know if that bright light up in the sky is a planet or a star? Easy; stars twinkle. Planets don't. (If the light blinks regularly and is moving, it's a plane. If it grows bright then fades and is moving, it's a satellite. If it flares up really bright, enough that you could see it during the day, and lasts several weeks before fading, it's a supernova. If it's fuzzy and grows a tail, it's a naked-eye comet. If it's sudden, really really bright, and takes up your whole field of vision, it's the flashlight of a police officer who's wondering why you're laying on the ground staring up at the sky.)

So, want to know what planets are currently up?  Why, all of them, if you know where and when to look.

The early evening sky favours us with a glimpse of Mercury in Pisces. Uranus is also close by, but twilight might be too bright at the moment to spot it well. (Give it a go in about six months' time. Under the right conditions, Uranus can be spotted with the naked eye and some skill in very dark skies. But if you've got binoculars or a telescope, I recommend this for better luck.)  Mars isn't too far behind in Aries.

My wee shot of Saturn.
A couple of hours after sunset should give you bright Jupiter in Virgo, rising in the east. While easily the brightest planet in the sky right now, you'll really have a show with binocs or a telescope, because you'll be able to spot the four Galilean moons and maybe even see banding.

You'll have to stay up late, or get up early to see Saturn between Scorpio and Sagittarius. This year and next year is excellent to view Saturn through a telescope, as the rings are pretty much as full on tilted our way as they get.

Neptune is a morning star in Aquarius and Venus is close by, just before dawn.

Her Grace loves to stare up at the sky, and does so nearly every single night.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I grew up with the mnemonic "My Very Earnest Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets." What do I say now? Even if it is a dwarf planet. What do I tell children who ask? Still, it's comforting to know it has happened before - and that if it hadn't happened we'd be a solar system with hundreds of planets!
I don't have a telescope and wouldn't know how to set one up anyway. Where I live, in the middle of town, there is too much light to see anything. I remember a few years ago when everyone gathered on our local beach to see a comet, but you really had to know what you were looking for and preferably have at least strong binoculars. People were pointing, "Look! Look! There it is!" Which was nice, but not helpful without telescope or binoculars.

Neha said...

Wow! Such an informative post. Should find a star gazing group now to get more equipped with knowledge.

My latest post Positive

Unknown said...

I grew up with learning that Pluto is the last family member of our solar system. And when it was declared to be dwarf planet, I was saddened. Few days back I read in news paper that they are bringing back Pluto to the list...
Very informative educative post.
Anagha From Team MocktailMommies
Collage Of Life

Morgan Cartwright said...

I love looking up at the stars, planets, satellites, all the objects in the sky. I have taught many the difference between stars and planets.