Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:
According to the International Astronomy Union (I.A.U.), an astronomical object qualifies as a planet if:
- It orbits the Sun.
- It’s round due to the pull of its own gravity.
- It’s cleared its orbital path of asteroids or other debris (this is the part of the planet test Pluto failed.
The I.A.U.’s planet definition has caused a lot of grumbling and controversy, and not only because of Pluto. Let’s focus today on the first criterion for planethood: in order to be a planet, an object has to orbit the Sun. Not just any sun, but the Sun, as in our Sun. With a capital S.
Which means big, round objects orbiting other stars don’t qualify. The I.A.U. suggests calling them exoplanets or extrasolar planets, but they aren’t, strictly speaking, planets.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it seems awfully geocentric of us to have one word for objects orbiting our Sun and a different word for the same type of objects orbiting other stars.
However, I have to admit having a special term for “planet orbiting another star” is kind of handy. It saves me time in conversations and cuts down on the word counts of blog posts. So I guess it’s worth knowing the official I.A.U. definition for this handy, time-saving term.
Except the I.A.U. doesn’t have an official definition for exoplanets. Why not? Let’s try adapting the current planet definition to exoplanets and see what happens.
- An exoplanet has to orbit a star other than our Sun. (Seems okay so far).
- An exoplanet has to be round due to the pull of its own gravity. (Our telescopes can’t visually confirm that exoplanets are round, but based on estimates of their mass we can safely assume they’re round. We’re probably still okay.)
- An exoplanet has to have cleared its orbital path of debris. (This is a real problem because in most cases there’s no way to confirm, visually or otherwise, that an exoplanet has done this.)
There is a proposal to change the I.A.U. planet definition again, this time based on quantitative data rather than visual observations. This, by the way, is different than the geophysical everything’s-a-planet definition I wrote about previously. The geophysical definition would make Pluto a planet again; the quantitative definition would not.
Back in 2006, the I.A.U. changed the definition of planet, excluding Pluto from the planet club, because we’d learned new information about our Solar System. More new information about planets, exoplanets, and other planet-like objects has been piling up since then, which is why we keep hearing about these proposals to change the definition again.
Personally, I like the more inclusive geophysical definition, but that’s just my preference. Plenty of intelligent and well-meaning people disagree. But I think sooner or later, the I.A.U. will have to revisit this issue to ensure the definitions of planet and exoplanet match.