When I was a kid, Pluto was the ninth planet in our solar system. Coming right after Neptune in the outer reaches of our planetary system, we didn't know a lot about it except that it was likely made mostly of ice and rock and that it takes about three healthy human lifetimes for it to circle the sun.
It was also the smallest planet, meaning that it got the tiny Styrofoam ball when it came time to build that 3-D diorama in middle school science class. Beyond that, Pluto's greatest claim to fame might have been that it shared a name with Mickey Mouse's dog. That was until 2006, when the International Astronomical Union controversally redefined the term "planet" and suddenly there were only eight. Pluto, the scientific community said, was now a dwarf planet. At the time, I pictured science teachers across the country having to dismantle parts of their classroom to demote Pluto.
You know you're getting old when you outlive a planet. Science can be a cruel son of a gun.
But after the New Horizons spacecraft's high-speed flyby earlier this week, there's renewed interest in restoring Pluto's planetary status. Photos, shot from less than 8,000 miles away, showed it isn't some featureless body but instead it has mountains, an atmosphere and is slightly bigger than we originally thought. So are we ready to make it a planet again?
Depends on whom you ask. Numerous published reports have indicated that the IAU isn't interested in revisiting the issue and "celebrity" scientists Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are on the side of IAU. Tyson, never one to hold back, took to Twitter this week as the new photos rolled in to say, "Dear Pluto. Lookin' good. But you're still a Dwarf Planet — get over it." Meanwhile, NASA's New Horizons principle investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, told TED, a scientific website, that Pluto should be a planet. "Science doesn't work by voting. Did people vote on the theory of relativity? No! It's either right or it's wrong. … Voting doesn't work in science."
Now, who am I to challenge either of these men? The reason I became a writer is to avoid science and math. But as we saw the pictures of Pluto downloading to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in nearby Laurel this week, it's hard not to think that maybe we were a bit quick in dismissing Pluto. The cheering crowd of scientists and technicians there this week would probably agree. Many of them have been working on the New Horizons mission since it launched in 2006, coincidentally the same year Pluto was reclassified.
My guess is that, at least for space buffs, the argument won't end any time soon. And honestly, a decision isn't going to change much. For me, the best idea in this whole Pluto saga came from William Shatner, Captain Kirk himself. He also took to Twitter to suggest we "thumb our nose" at the IAU and just start calling Pluto a planet again. Makes as much sense as anything to me.