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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Pluto loses status as a planet
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by US astronomer Clyde Tombaugh

Astronomers have voted to strip Pluto of its status as a planet.

About 2,500 scientists meeting in Prague have adopted historic new guidelines that see the small, distant world demoted to a secondary category.

The researchers said Pluto failed to dominate its orbit around the Sun in the same way as the other planets.

The International Astronomical Union's (IAU) decision means textbooks will now have to describe a Solar System with just eight major planetary bodies.

I don't see the need to redefine the solar system
Siraj Ahsan, Dubai

Pluto, which was discovered in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh, will be referred to as a "dwarf planet".

There is a recognition that the demotion is likely to upset the public, who have become accustomed to a particular view of the Solar System.


"I have a slight tear in my eye today, yes; but at the end of the day we have to describe the Solar System as it really is, not as we would like it to be," said Professor Iwan Williams, chair of the IAU panel that has been working over recent months to define the term "planet".

Voting and the IAU meeting (IAU)
The meeting had seen some fierce arguments before final voting
The need for a strict definition was deemed necessary after new telescope technologies began to reveal far-off objects that rivalled Pluto in size.

Without a new nomenclature, these discoveries raised the prospect that textbooks could soon be talking about 50 or more planets in the Solar System.

Amid dramatic scenes in the Czech capital which saw astronomers waving yellow ballot papers in the air, the IAU voted to block this possibility - and in the process took the historic decision to relegate Pluto.

The scientists agreed that for a celestial body to qualify as a planet:

  • it must be in orbit around the Sun
  • it must be large enough that it takes on a nearly round shape
  • it has cleared its orbit of other objects

Pluto was automatically disqualified because its highly elliptical orbit overlaps with that of Neptune. It will now join a new category of dwarf planets.

Icy reaches

Pluto's status has been contested for many years. It is further away and considerably smaller than the eight other "traditional" planets in our Solar System. At just 2,360km (1,467 miles) across, Pluto is smaller even than some moons in the Solar System.

Named after underworld god
Average of 5.9bn km to Sun
Orbits Sun every 248 years
Diameter of 2,360km
Has at least three moons
Rotates every 6.8 days
Gravity about 6% of Earth's
Surface temperature -233C
Nasa probe visits in 2015
Its orbit around the Sun is also highly tilted compared with the plane of the big planets.

In addition, since the early 1990s, astronomers have found several objects of comparable size to Pluto in an outer region of the Solar System called the Kuiper Belt.

Some astronomers have long argued that Pluto would be better categorised alongside this population of small, icy worlds.

The critical blow for Pluto came with the discovery three years ago of an object currently designated 2003 UB313. After being measured with the Hubble Space Telescope, it was shown to be some 3,000km (1,864 miles) in diameter: it is bigger than Pluto.

2003 UB313 will now join Pluto in the dwarf category, along with the biggest asteroid in the Solar System, Ceres.

Named after the god of the underworld in Roman mythology, Pluto orbits the Sun at an average distance of 5.9 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles) taking 247.9 Earth years to complete a single circuit of the Sun.

An unmanned US spacecraft, New Horizons, is due to fly by Pluto and the Kuiper Belt in 2015.

New Solar System - not to scale (BBC)

Why Pluto has been stripped of its status as a planet

Q&A: Pluto's planetary demotion
24 Aug 06 |  Science/Nature
Crunch time for Planet Pluto
20 Jun 06 |  Science/Nature
Pluto probe launches from Florida
20 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Distant world tops Pluto for size
01 Feb 06 |  Science/Nature
Mission guide: New Horizons
19 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
The girl who named a planet
13 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Astronomers detect '10th planet'
30 Jul 05 |  Science/Nature

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