Headline Aug 19, 2015/ ''' PLUTO PYRAMID '''


IN THE DECADES AFTER Pluto's discovery, better observation made it clear that the new world wasn't anywhere near the size of the  7,926 mile-diameter Earth but-

Just 1,471 miles across, or smaller than the moon.

And starting in the 90s, astronomers began to realize that Pluto isn't alone at all,. It's merely the brightest member of an enormous swarm of ice-covered objects that make up what's known as the  Kuiper Belt, which orbits the sun out beyond Neptune.

In 2000, that lead Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of  the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, to leave Pluto out of a display in the Planetarium's newly renovated main gallery.

And in 2006, the International Astronomical Union  {IAU}, the cosmic court of last appeal, agreed.

With the discovery of many more Kuiper Belt Objects  [KBOs], some rivaling Pluto in size, the IAU realized it was faced with the possibility of a solar system that could include dozens of planets.

So the term, planet, which had never been formally defined, was reframed in a way exquisitely tuned to exclude Pluto and its kin.

Not only would something that aspired to be a planet have to orbit the sun and be spherical but it would also have to  ''clear its neighbourhood'' of any other bodies of similar size.

Pluto failed that last test spectacularly and would thus be busted down to dwarf-planet status. Pluto lovers steamed.

''If those people had been around in 1610 when Galileo discovered there's an unaccountable number of stars,'' grumbles Stern, now at the Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, ''they would have restricted it to a number you could remember.''  

BUT WHILE PLUTO PARTISANS lost that round, they had already won a much bigger one.

In 2011,  after Tyson booted Pluto from his main hall, an impromptu ''Don't mess with Pluto''  campaign began in astronomy circles.

When NASA rejected yet another mission, Stern says, '' we mounted an insurrection on every level from the press to little students to the science community.''

He and his team lobbied Congress as well   -and that same year, New Horizons got the final thumbs-up.

''You could tell even when we were in grad school together that it was Alan's destiny to make a Pluto mission happen,'' says  MIT planetary scientist Richard Binzel, a member of New Horizons team.

''The project is lean and mean, and he runs it with incredible efficiency.''

Tyson, who remains firmly opposed to granting Pluto the planet honorfic, agrees and looks forward as eagerly as anyone to the spacecraft's encounter. 

''Alan and I are not always on the same side of the argument,'' he says, ''but then that's what makes the frontier of any endeavour a vibrant place to be.''

The very thing that reduced Pluto's official standing   -the abundance of other KBOs    -actually make this endeavour even more tantalizing.

We used to think that there were two zones to the solar-system: the rocky inner world and the gaseous outer ones. ''We now know there's a third zone.'' says Stern, ''and Pluto is part of it.''

Given all the Pluto's  Kuiper Belt company, its surface is likely packed with craters created when smaller  KBOs slammed into it; a count of those craters could reveal the frequency of impacts and the sizes of the objects that made them, providing an indirect census of what's actually in the Kuiper Belt.

Or maybe there won't be many craters after all. That would suggest that Pluto, long assumed to be totally inert, is geological active, with slush or even water erupting from underground to create a fresh surface every so often. 

There's also the mystery of how Pluto acquired the largest of its five known moons, Charon.

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