For years, rumors have swirled in astronomy circles that the most distant body in our solar system is not really a planet — but not exactly a moon, either. Pluto says that it almost told the truth to Voyager 2 in 2007, when the probe was a mere 119 million miles away, but the timing just didn’t seem right.
“But now, everyone is finally paying attention to me, so I’m ready to tell the Universe who I really am,” Pluto said on Thursday, according to messages relayed from the nearby New Horizons probe, which was launched from Earth in 2006.
NASA administrators were among the first to applaud Pluto’s decision, saying that it’s never easy for a planet to go through such a big transition.
“It’s not for us to judge celestial bodies,” said Dana Bolden, the space agency’s chief sensitivity trainer. “How would we feel if giant Jupiter, for example, started referring to Earth as a mere asteroid? We wouldn’t like it at all.”
But not everyone is happy with the move towards reclassification. Older astronomers were quick to level criticism at the willingness to accept Pluto’s claim, insisting that what’s inside Pluto’s core is pretty much what’s inside Charon, Pluto’s largest moon.
“It’s mostly just ice,” said Nicholas Lowry, a professor of astronomy at Imperial College London. Lowry is considered by many to represent planetary science’s far-right wing. The Southern Cosmology Law Center even links him to various extremist groups who completely reject the basic tenets of theoretical astrophysics.
“It’s not a star,” Lowry said. “You can’t tell me that Pluto is a burning ball of gas, because it’s not. Everything is frozen there.”
However, younger astronomers, especially those who grew up with the internet where they could read about wild concepts like wormholes and multiverses, say that we need to respect Pluto’s decision, pointing out that until quite recently, the astronomy community was even toying with idea of reclassifying Pluto as a very slow comet.
Pluto says that it doesn’t matter what critics on Earth have to say, because it has always known that it was a star.
“Even out here in the darkest reaches of the Solar System, I felt like my core was not all solid and cold. No. There’s something alive inside of me, something hot and glowing. I’m sure of it.”
“I’m a star,” Pluto said. “Because I shine.”
Within hours of the announcement, the hashtag #PlutoShines took over Twitter.
— Upworthy (@Upworthydotcom) July 16, 2015
— Franklin J. Dubbles (@FranklinDubbles) July 16, 2015
The final step for recognizing the new Pluto will be for the International Astronomical Union to officially change the definition of a star. The criteria currently include being mostly composed of gas and plasma, and emitting radiation from nuclear fusion. The new definition, says one source, will include the words “possessing these traits, or feeling like one possess these traits.”
This is the second time in recent history that a celestial body has announced that it was not what astronomers were claiming. In 2005, a radio telescope operator in Chile received a message from a white dwarf in the distant NN Serpentis system that claimed it was, in fact, a black hole. Even though some astronomers argued that this assertion was absurd — along with a nearby red dwarf, the star is part of a clearly binary system — the IAU agreed to reclassify it, which led a few vocal critics to make charges of stellar spectral appropriation.