Herald Journal Columns
August 21, 2006, Herald Journal

The solar system’s new neighbors


In 1972, I entered the annual Holy Trinity Science Fair. My project was about the planets that orbited the sun.

I called my project “The Revolution of The Planets.” I wanted to create a display that included the nine planets and the Sun. To accomplish this, I used a cardboard box, sprayed the inside with black paint, glued some of those “sparkly things” in it for stars, cut a hole on one end that I used to stick the yellow bug light (Sun) inside the box (no, I didn’t set fire to the box when I plugged the lamp in), and cut a rectangular hole on the other side where folks would peer in and be amazed by what was a perfect representation of Mr. Sun and the nine planets.

What would I use to support the nine planets that I made from those perfectly proportioned Styrofoam balls? Well, it was suggested to me that I should use those round lamp rings that hold up the shades on the lamps.

I thought that was so cool.

Ok, in reality I think my mother would have been somewhat concerned if I went around the house and took all the lamp-rings that held the lamp-shades up.

Fortunately for me, Winsted had the Worn-A-Bit Shop. I found all nine lamp rings and in the correct sizes I needed to show distance. I used the small inner ring that supported my Mercury Styrofoam planet, to the largest outer ring that supported Pluto.

Charles DeVoss, who was in addition to being my eighth grade social studies teacher, was also head of the science fair. I remembered how he smiled as he peered into the box that had the glowing yellow “Sun” and the rings that displayed my painted Styrofoam planets. I remember he mentioned something about how I had all nine planets there and that I didn’t miss any.

Here we are, 34 years later, and it seems that I did miss a few planets.

An organization called the International Astronomical Union (IAU) ,which was started in 1919 and is the largest professional body for astronomers, and including many of the world’s top astronomers, finished two years of effort in defining what a “planet” is. The IAU is meeting in Prague, Checklosovakia this month.

There are now three new planets, bringing the total to 12, with possibly more to come.

How many remember those nine planets? Here we go: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

We will now be adding: Cerus, (which is more like an asteroid than a planet), that orbits the Sun in between Mars and Jupiter.

Charon which is one of Pluto’s moons and the newly-discovered planet with the current designation of: 2003-UB313. They do not have an “official” name for it yet so it is just a number for now. This new object orbiting our sun was announced in 2005 by Caltech astronomer Dr. Mike Brown along with a few of his colleagues. 2003-UB313 is larger and further away from the Sun than is Pluto.

Why it is called 2003-UB313, when it was discovered in 2005, has me scratching my head somewhat, but I assume that they had some astronomical reason for it.

The word “planet” comes from the Greek word meaning “wanderer.” I suppose the Greeks would look up at the bright night sky and wonder about those bright shiny objects wandering across the sky.

This is how the IAU defines what a planet is: “A planet is a celestial body that has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape and is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.”

I think I heard the same explanation from Mr. Spock and Commander Data once during an episode of Star Trek.

The IAU also created a new category of planets called “plutons.” These plutons are distinguished from the classical planets in that they reside in orbits around the Sun that take longer than 200 years to complete (i.e. those orbiting beyond Neptune).

You can visit the IAU website at http://www.iau2006.org for more information.

Now, the only thing left for me to do is to find out where I put that 1st place award-winning 1972 science fair project and figure out how the heck I am going to fit three more lamp rings in it.