So it’s like this.
Your parents are out of town. You’ve seen the movies, so you know what you have to do. Throw a party, obviously. But, because you’ve seen the movies, you also know what happens next. You make the mistake of inviting THAT GUY, and he invites a few hundred of his closest friends, people you didn’t even know existed. Suddenly your house is trashed, that expensive vase is broken, the police are called. The parents will not be happy.
And so you want to avoid that. You still want the party of course, you’re no fool. But you don’t want your house to be trashed. You want to be responsible. The correct and proper way to handle this is to continue with the party, but whatever you do, you can’t invite THAT GUY.
How do you know who THAT GUY is? Well, he’s kind of eccentric. He’s sort of “way out there”. He’s always disappearing for awhile, and then returning. He’s mysterious. And he doesn’t move in the same circles you do. He seems to move around between different circles actually. He’s kind of an interloper. Unlike the rest of your friends, he hasn’t really made a place for himself in the world. And he has some really weird friends. But honestly you don’t know how many, because most of them live in the middle of nowhere, and go to places you’d never go in a million years. Some people say he has more like twenty friends, or maybe fifty. And others claim he could have hundreds of friends.
Pluto is THAT GUY.
We had a nice little party going. Earth, and seven of his closest friends. You know, good people. And Pluto seemed OK at first. A bit odd. But lately we’re starting to see the horrible truth. Pluto has to go, because if he doesn’t, he’s going to trash our house, break that vase, bring the police, and we’re gonna be in huge trouble with our parents.
The eight real planets each know their proper place, in a respectful nearly circular orbit. They keep their orbit clean, not allowing lots of other junk to accumulate in it. And all of the orbits are arranged neatly, like pretty houses on a tree-lined street. Pluto’s orbit is tilted sideways, and he keeps crossing over other peoples orbits, trespassing. Sometimes he stays over in the orbit of one of the other planets, sometimes another. And sometimes, who knows where he is. He’s certainly not cleaning up. In terms of orbital debris, you are either part of the problem, or part of the solution, and I think we all know which one Pluto is now.
When we first met Pluto he was hailed as a hero. He was the “Planet X” we’d been looking for. He was going to solve all the problems we noticed in the orbits of the other eight planets. That’s why he was invited in the first place. But the invitation was based on false pretenses. Pluto didn’t solve anything. He wasn’t big enough or important enough to fix anything.
Right from the start, Pluto lied to us.
Now that we’ve come to our senses, we’ve come to realize that he has lots of little friends out there. None of them are very big or important, and none of them solve our Planet X problem. And none of them keep a tidy orbit. Many of them are not planets at all, because they aren’t even round. And they’re all trouble. We thought we were getting a loyal companion, but it turns out Pluto is like the ruler of the freakin’ underworld.
So far we know of five other friends of his that qualify as dwarf planets because they’re round. And at this point, we have almost FOUR HUNDRED more possible candidates. Many of them may not qualify because we may find that they’re not round enough. But many of them probably are. There’s at least dozens. Much like rats, they are ridiculously easy to find.
Which brings us to an even more awkward moment in this story. Not only did we disinvite Pluto from this party, but, umm… the invitation is already in the mail. In fact it’s almost there.
In 2006, we launched the New Horizons mission to visit our last unvisited planet. And then we immediately got cold feet. Buyer’s remorse. This is when we decided Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore. The worst part? I don’t think anyone has bothered to tell New Horizons. This poor little probe is cruising along, getting closer and closer day by day, excitedly snapping photos of what it firmly believes is our ninth planet. And we’re just letting it all happen.
We’re even using New Horizons to justify our decision. We got New Horizons up in a hurry. We needed to launch quickly before Pluto left our neighborhood to hang out on the other side of the tracks. But we hoped New Horizons could visit other dwarf planets out there — we just didn’t know of any. So we spent a bunch of time looking at the tiny, tiny, mind-boggling small section of the sky where New Horizons is going, in the hope of finding some other object out there for the probe to visit.
We found three candidates.
Like I said, it’s ridiculously easy to find Pluto’s friends. And they’re just as eccentric, unkempt, and unruly as we thought they were. They would’ve ruined the party, and we were completely correct in kicking Pluto out of our little club. Because I’m so confident that this decision is correct and defensible, I’m sure Pluto will understand.
As long as I’m not the one that has to tell him.
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