New Evidence Could Help Restore Pluto's Planet Status

New evidence could help spark a renewed debate about restoring Pluto's planethood. Images from NASA’s New Horizons mission reveals the “dwarf planet” may have clouds, which would indicate a weather system.

New evidence could help restore Pluto's planethood. Images from NASA’s New Horizons mission reveal the “dwarf planet” may have clouds, which would indicate a weather system.

In order to be considered a planet, outer-space bodies have to meet a set of criteria. It must circle the sun without being some other object’s satellite; be rounded by its own gravity; not be so big to undergo nuclear fusion like a star; and clear its neighborhood of most orbiting bodies. Pluto failed on this last count, as it shares most of its space with other objects from the Kuiper Belt. So, in 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) striped it of its planet status back in 2006. However, not everyone agrees with the IAU's standards for what defines a planet. 

Alan Stern, head of the New Horizons mission, believes this criteria to define a planet is flawed. He believes it passes what he refers to as the “Star Trek test”--you know a planet when you see it.

“When you’re watching a science fiction show like “Star Trek” and they show up at some object in space and turn on the viewfinder, the audience and the people in the show know immediately whether it’s a planet, or a star, or a comet or an asteroid,” Stern told Space.

These images may help rekindle the debate among astronomers and restore Pluto to its rightful place as the ninth planet in our solar system.

Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory told New Scientist, researchers have noticed “low-altitude features” and “bright cloud-like things” hovering above Pluto's icy surface. The team of researchers plans on releasing a paper in Science titled, “The Atmosphere of Pluto as Observed by New Horizons.” According to New Scientist, the discussion of Pluto's clouds will only be a passing mention.

There are still gigabytes of data waiting to be received by Earth scientists from the New Horizons probe. It takes time to transmit these findings from so far away. But the complexity of Pluto's atmosphere may have scientists over at IAU reconsidering their criteria for what makes a planet.


Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

Plants have awareness and intelligence, argue scientists

Research in plant neurobiology shows that plants have senses, intelligence and emotions.

Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • The field of plant neurobiology studies the complex behavior of plants.
  • Plants were found to have 15-20 senses, including many like humans.
  • Some argue that plants may have awareness and intelligence, while detractors persist.
Keep reading Show less

Vaping changes blood vessels after one use, even without nicotine

E-cigarettes may be safer than traditional cigarettes, but they come with their own risks.

John Keeble
Surprising Science
  • A new study used an MRI machine to examine how vaping e-cigarettes affects users' cardiovascular systems immediately after inhalation.
  • The results showed that vaping causes impaired circulation, stiffer arteries and less oxygen in their blood.
  • The new study adds to a growing body of research showing that e-cigarettes – while likely safer than traditional cigarettes – are far from harmless.
Keep reading Show less

Space is dead: A challenge to the standard model of quantum mechanics

Since the idea of locality is dead, space itself may not be an aloof vacuum: Something welds things together, even at great distances.

  • Realists believe that there is an exactly understandable way the world is — one that describes processes independent of our intervention. Anti-realists, however, believe realism is too ambitious — too hard. They believe we pragmatically describe our interactions with nature — not truths that are independent of us.
  • In nature, properties of Particle B may be depend on what we choose to measure or manipulate with Particle A, even at great distances.
  • In quantum mechanics, there is no explanation for this. "It just comes out that way," says Smolin. Realists struggle with this because it would imply certain things can travel faster than light, which still seems improbable.
Keep reading Show less