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If one of the rules to be a planet is that it needs to clear ALL objects from their orbit, does this also make Neptune a non-planet? Since it has thus far failed to clear Pluto (and based on an answer from the physics board, the kuiper belt) from it's orbit. Or does this rule not really apply to planets and we should welcome Pluto and a few other dwarf-planets into our family of planets?

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I answered this same question at physics.SE. I specifically joined this part of the SE network to address this duplicate question at this site.


The astronomy community faced two crises with regard to what constitutes a "planet", first in the mid 19th century, and more recently at the start of the 21st century. The first crisis involved the asteroids. The second involved trans-Neptunian objects. Both crises challenged astronomers to question what a "planet" was.

1 Ceres, 2 Pallas, 3 Juno, and 4 Vesta were discovered in quick succession during the first decade of the 19th century. There was no international astronomical organization at the time of these discoveries; the International Astronomical Union wouldn't be formed for another century. Instead, the designation of what constituted a "planet" fell on the major astronomical almanacs such as the Berliner Astronomisches Jahrbuch (BAJ). Those discoveries at the start of the 19th century were treated as newly discovered "planets". This situation remained static for about 40 years.

That changed in 1845 with the discovery of 5 Astraea. During the 1850s, the list of objects orbiting the Sun grew to 50, and during the 1860s, the list grew to over 100. The response of the BAJ and others was to demote Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta from planethood status to some lesser status, either minor planet or asteroid. Astronomers didn't have a clear-cut concept of what constituted a planet other than that they should somehow be large. Ceres, the largest of the bunch, is not very large. The end result of all of these discoveries starting in 1845 was that the first four discovered asteroids were demoted from planethood status.

The second crisis started in 1992 with the discovery of (15760) 1992 QB1. By 2006, the number of trans-Neptunian objects had grown significantly. Were these things "planets", or something else? Some astronomers, notably Alan Stern, wanted the term "planet" to be extremely inclusive. Most astronomers balked at this idea.

Paradoxically, it was Alan Stern himself, along with Harold Levison, who provided the key criterion of "clearing the neighborhood" that lies at the heart of what the IAU deems to constitute a "planet." Their paper, Stern and Levison, "Regarding the criteria for planethood and proposed planetary classification schemes," Highlights of Astronomy 12 (2002): 205-213 suggested splitting "planet" into two categories, "überplanet" (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) and "unterplanet" (Pluto+Charon, Eris, Ceres, Sedna, and a host of others).

Stern is being quite hypocritical when he rants that there is no clear-cut boundary between "planets" and "dwarf planets." The boundary is huge, and Stern knows this. The ratio of the square of an object's mass to its orbital radius about the Sun is key in determining whether an object can clear most of the junk from the vicinity of the object's orbit. There is a five order of magnitude difference between the smallest of the planets and the largest of the dwarf planets in terms of this ratio. This five order of magnitude difference figures predominantly in that paper by Stern and Levison.

The only difference between the proposal by Stern and Levison versus the voted-upon IAU resolution is that while Stern and Levison wanted to designate hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of objects into subcategories of "planet" ("überplanet" and "interplant"). On the other hand, the IAU chose to designate those objects as the mutually exclusive terms "planets" and "dwarf planets". This is consistent with how astronomers dealt with that first crisis. Planets should be "large." Stern and Levison provided the necessary ammunition to distinguish large from not so large.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, this (together with your answer on physics.SE) makes it quite clear! $\endgroup$ – Dieudonné Oct 16 '14 at 13:27
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There is actually disagreement on this matter (within the IAU?). Dr. Alan Stern (lead of the New Horizons mission) for instance points out that "this rule is inconsistent" (e.g. see Pluto vote 'hijacked' in revolt). Not only has Neptune not cleared its path, but the same holds for Earth, Mars and even Jupiter. Jupiter has a set of asteroids (the Trojans) which follow the same orbit (in the Lagrangian point L4 and L5).

Maybe the definition should be adjusted to include only those bodies as planets in the solar systems that have cleared all objects from their path except those objects that are in resonant orbits with the planet.

Resonant objects are those objects whose Periods are related to the Planet's period by a ration of "small integer numbers". Pluto has a resonance with Neptune of 2:3. This means that for every two orbits completed by Pluto, Neptune will complete three orbits with the result that Neptune and Pluto never come close enough for Neptune to clear Pluto from its orbit.

In the case of the Trojan asteroids, the resonance is 1:1. the Trojans are alway either 60° in front of or behind of Jupiter and therefore never come close to Jupiter.

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    $\begingroup$ Alan is leading the Pluto probe. It is his job to do marketing for this event. Of course he takes advantage of the ridiculous Pluto/planet debacle to bring public attention to his mission and his team. Don't search for logic in PR. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Oct 15 '14 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ Sooooo you disagree with the assessment over at Physics.SE that says Neptune has cleared its neighborhood? $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Oct 16 '14 at 0:08
  • $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff I hadn't considered the PR side. You may be right. $\endgroup$ – Dieudonné Oct 16 '14 at 6:29
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos No I don't disagree, though I would prefer if the IAU was more clear in its definition. $\endgroup$ – Dieudonné Oct 16 '14 at 6:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Dieudonné - Think of it in terms of a constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments are almost always short and more than a bit vague. Making sense of those somewhat cryptic amendments is a task left to to the legislative and judicial branches of government. The same applies to that IAU resolution, but here the details are left to the published academic media. When you look at those publications, the distinction is extremely clear. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Oct 16 '14 at 11:14
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IAU failed to understand that the concept "planet" is a cultural concept, not a scientific concept, not any more anyway. Of course there's no distinct objective scientific definition between what is a planet and what is not. Mercury and Jupiter in the same category? Yeah, right, as if that clarifies what we are talking about when we use the word "planet"!

Pluto was discovered in 1930. Back then a planet was a dot in the sky. Since then our knowledge has advanced. IAU should've decided that there were 9 planets discovered in our historical culture. And now we discover many objects which are much the same as some planets. Another plutoid here, a jupiteoid there. But there are only 9 planets in the entire universe, because "planet" is a cultural concept.

Now, what shall we call Ceres? It is not a planet, it is not an asteroid, it is not a plutoid. Are we back in 1801?

And so called "exoplanets", are they really planets? How do we know that they have cleared their orbits? IAU should consequently decide to classify them as "exodwarfplanets". No exoplanets have been confirmed.

How long is a string according to the confused IAU?

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  • $\begingroup$ Hey, I know now! Ceres is a COMET! It has been observed to have plumes, or a coma as it is called! Just like its discoverer Giuseppe Piazzi first thought when he saw it. The revision of the revisions of the revisions have been revised! $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Nov 26 '14 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for bringing up exoplanets. We would have thought a hot Jupiter impossible a few short years ago, who's to say we won't find a Jupiter with 3 other planets sharing its orbit? $\endgroup$ – IchabodE Nov 26 '14 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ The cultural definition of "planet" has changed before. If you want to keep the number of planets at 9, how do you justify saying Pluto is a planet and Eris isn't? If a dozen Kuiper Belt objects had been discovered in the 1930s, we probably wouldn't be having this debate (though we might well be having a different one). $\endgroup$ – Keith Thompson Nov 26 '14 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ This undefinition of planets was not cultural, it was an ill thought through decision of the IAU. "Planet" should've been left alone. Other terms are needed to describe how Venus and Titan are in the same class because they have atmospheres, and how Ceres and Europa are in the same class because they are icy bodies. How they orbit what was only of key importance in the ancient days when they were just wandering dots in the sky. How is today's definition of "planet" scientifically useful? (It is as if IAU had changed the embarrassing name of Uranus to "Urectum" to solve the problem ;-) $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Nov 26 '14 at 23:41

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