Apr 25, 2017

Distant Dwarf Planet DeeDee Stirs Up the Pluto Planethood Debate

Artist concept of the planetary body 2014 UZ224, more informally known as DeeDee. ALMA was able to observe the faint millimeter-wavelength "glow" emitted by the object, confirming it is roughly 635 kilometers across. At this size, DeeDee should have enough mass to be spherical, the criterion necessary for astronomers to consider it a dwarf planet, though it has yet to receive that official designation.
What's a planet? What's a dwarf planet? Should we make a distinction? Should we really care about these definitions in the first place?

As we learn more about the outer solar system, the boundaries begin to blur.

A tiny celestial body called 2014 UZ224 and informally known as DeeDee (for “distant dwarf”) is a distant world about 92 astronomical units, or Earth-sun distances, from our sun. Recent observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) revealed that DeeDee is roughly 395 miles (635 kilometers) across, which would give it enough mass to be spherical.

Why does it matter if DeeDee is round? In 2006, a controversial vote by the International Astronomical Union defined three parameters for a planet. Simply speaking, the IAU says a planet must be in orbit around the sun, have enough mass to be round, and have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit — meaning it needs to be gravitationally dominant and hold any nearby bodies within its orbit.

Size comparisons of objects in our solar system, including the recently discovered planetary body "DeeDee."
It's the last part of the definition that most aggravates those who argue that Pluto – redefined as a "dwarf" planet under the IAU – is more planet than not. The argument is that the rocky planets of Earth, Mars, Venus, and Mercury have also not cleared their neighborhoods, as many asteroids co-orbit along with them.

The planetary geologist Kirby Runyon, a Ph.D. student at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, wrote a paper this year proposing a geophysical-based definition of a planet that would dispense with the orbital criterion and basically include any round celestial body that isn’t a star. The idea hatched by Runyon and his co-authors — which include Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto — would increase the number of purported planets in our solar system to over 110, including Earth’s moon and DeeDee.

"What it's really showing is the diversity of planets in our solar system,” said Runyon of the DeeDee news, “and giving us a better understanding of planets in the rest of the galaxy.”

"DeeDee is almost certainly made out of ices — water ices, methane, and carbon dioxide — which is similar to what Pluto is made of," he added. "These are very soft materials, compared with rocky silicate. It's more easily pulled into a sphere than rock or metal."

Orbits of objects in our solar system, showing the current location of the planetary body "DeeDee."
Adding more fodder to the debate over the definition, when the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in 2015, it unveiled a world of surprising complexity, ranging from mountainous areas to vast nitrogen-ice lakes.

"We call Pluto a 'dwarf' planet, but it's just an adjective for 'planet,’” Runyon said. “It's still a planet, and that's where we take umbrage with the IAU.”

"Astronomers aren't experts in planetary science, and they basically passed a bunch of B.S. off on the public back in 2006 with a planet classification so flawed that it rules the Earth out as a planet, too," Stern remarked in 2016. "A week later, hundreds of planetary scientists, more people than at the IAU vote, signed a petition that rejects the new definition. If you go to planetary science meetings and hear technical talks on Pluto, you will hear experts calling it a planet every day."

Read more at Discovery News

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