"... he made the stars also." Genesis 1:16
- In 1930, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered a faint point of light orbiting the sun beyond Neptune. The new world "Pluto" was considered the ninth planet for 76 years, but in 2006 the International Astronomical Union voted to reclassify Pluto as a "dwarf planet".
- Before Pluto, our solar system was neatly divided into the four terrestrial planets that orbit close to the sun and the four gas giants that orbit farther out.
- This new planet (Pluto) broke the mold, being a small rocky/icy body at tremendous distance.
- Unlike any other planet, Pluto showed no discernible size in even the largest telescopes of the period. This meant that it had to be much smaller than Uranus or Neptune and no bigger than Earth.
- Using modern telescopes, we now know that Pluto is only 1,430 miles in diameter - about 18 percent the diameter of Earth - and smaller than any of the other eight planets. It has less than 1 percent of the mass of Earth.
- The new estimate of its small size is one reason for Pluto's demotion from planet-hood.
- But it's not the only reason. In 1992, astronomers detected another object orbiting beyond Neptune. Designated "1992 QB," the object was a mere 100 miles in diameter - far too small for a planet. The following year, five similar objects were also discovered orbiting beyond Neptune. Over the next several years, dozens more of these distant masses were found, and we now know of hundreds. A few of them, such as Sedna and Makemake, are nearly as large as Pluto.
- With these discoveries, astronomers began to realize Pluto was not an unusual out-of-place planet but the largest member of a new class of objects - a trans-Neptunian object (TNO). As more TNOs were discovered, astronomers began to ask, "Should Pluto be reclassified?"
- In 2005, astronomers discovered a TNO that is larger and more massive than Pluto. Now named Eris, this world orbits the sun at twice the average distance of Pluto. But how should we classify this new world? It would not make sense to call it a TNO but not a planet since it is larger than the planet Pluto. Either Eris needed to be classified as the 10th planet, or Pluto would have to be demoted. Since Pluto and Eris are far more similar to the hundreds of other TNOs than they are to the (other) planets, the International Astronomical Union opted to revoke Pluto's status as a planet rather than reclassify dozens of similar-size objects as planets. With this new classification system in place, the solar system returned to having only eight planets, as it did before 1930.
- Pluto is a small world composed of rock and various types of ice, including nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide.
- Pluto has a tilt of 120 degrees and therefore rotates on its side like Uranus.
- Pluto's average distance from the sun is 3.6 billion miles, or 39 times Earth's distance.
- The temperature of Pluto's surface is -229°C (-380°F). Due to its extreme distance, Pluto takes 248 years to orbit the sun.
- Pluto has five known moons.
- Charon is the largest and was identified in 1978, appearing as a "bump" on an image of Pluto.
- Pluto's other four known moons are all less than 100 miles in diameter. Each of these was discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope. All orbit in the same plane farther out than Charon and are named - in order of increasing distance from Pluto - Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra.
- Pluto gives us a small glimpse into the infinite creativity of our Lord.
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