Magazine article Science News

Bigger Than Pluto: Tenth Planet or Icy Leftover?

Magazine article Science News

Bigger Than Pluto: Tenth Planet or Icy Leftover?

Article excerpt

Step aside, Pluto, there's a new kid in town. Astronomers last week announced that they have detected a body larger and more distant than Pluto. It's the biggest body found in the solar system since Neptune and its moon Triton were discovered in 1846. But whether the body, dubbed 2003 UB313, qualifies as our sun's tenth known planet is a matter of intense debate.

Many astronomers, including codiscoverer Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, says that it's a no-brainer--if Pluto is the ninth planet, then this object must he the tenth. But others argue that both Pluto and the newfound body, which are tiny compared with the other eight planets, are merely large members of the Kuiper belt, a reservoir containing thousands of icy leftovers from the solar system's formation.

The debate began last week when Brown and his colleagues Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Hilo, Hawaii, and David Rabinowitz of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., described the body in a July 29 circular of the International Astronomical Union. The team first found the object in October 2003 during a search for distant bodies in the solar system. For more than a year, the object remained just another data point. But early last January, a revised computer program flagged the object as notable: a slowly moving body that was brighter than other distant objects.

The slow motion indicated that the body resides far away, while the brightness suggested that it might be large. …

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