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Is this the 10th planet?

Astronomers have determined that Pluto is much smaller than an enigmatic object, 2003 UB313, whose discoverers claim is the Solar System?s 10th planet.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2006 18:46 IST

For more than seven decades, schoolchildren have been taught that tiny, lonely Pluto is the outermost of the nine planets that orbit the Sun. A big hole has now been bashed into that cherished piece of learning, for astronomers have determined that Pluto is much smaller than an enigmatic object, 2003 UB313, whose discoverers claim is the Solar System’s 10th planet.

UB313, found some 15 billion kilometres from Earth, ignited a huge row after its finding was announced last July 30 by an American team. Pluto’s defenders blasted UB313, saying it was not a planet but a vulgar rock.

The polite term for such abuse is a KBO Kuiper Belt Object for the estimated 100,000 pieces of icy, primeval debris that slowly encircle the Sun on the outskirts of the Solar System, far beyond the orbit of Neptune. The UB313 supporters’ club responded tartly, claiming that if anything deserved the moniker of KBO, it was Pluto.

For one thing, Pluto, discovered in 1930 by American Clyde Tombaugh, has a weird, unplanetary orbital plane. It is a whole 17 degrees off the horizontal plane taken by the eight other planets. In addition, its path around the Sun is so egg-shaped that, for 20 years of its 248-year orbit, is inside the track of Neptune itself. Now, weighing powerfully in this group’s favour, are the first detailed measurements of UB313’s size.

If the data are accepted by a special 19-member panel set up by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to determine what constitutes a planet, Pluto faces being booted out of the Solar System’s elite club, and downgraded to a mere KBO.

Either that, or the planetary list will have to expand to include UB313 and possibly many others. In a study published on Thursday in Nature, astronomers led by Frank Bertoldi of the University of Bonn in Germany say they have measured reflected solar radiation from UB313, using a 30-metre telescope in Spain, to get a yardstick of its size.

The result: UB313 has a diameter of about 3,000 kilometres, which would make it the largest Solar System object to be spotted since the discovery of Neptune in 1846.

And in a presentation reported last Friday by ScienceNow, a website run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AASA), Michael Brown, a California Institute of Technology (Caltech) astronomer, estimated that UB313 is roughly one percent larger than Pluto.

UB313 has yet to be given a name. In a naming competition run by the British magazine New Scientist, readers’ suggestions included Persephone, Pax, Galileo and Cerberus as well as Rupert and Bob.

First Published: Feb 03, 2006 18:46 IST