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Space & Planetary Science

Planetary Science Trash Talking

By Keith Cowing
June 21, 2015
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Planetary Science Trash Talking

A spacecraft launched in 2006 is about to try for our first good photo of Pluto, Washington Post
“NASA’s Jim Green is dismissive of the controversy: “That’s nomenclature. To me, that’s unimportant. What’s important is that this is a body well worth going to. It represents a brand new frontier.” Does Alan Stern think Pluto is still a legitimate, no- qualifiers “planet”? “Of course I do!” Stern said. “It has all the attributes of a planet. Screw the astronomers! Would you go to a podiatrist for brain surgery? They don’t know what they’re talking about!”
Keith’s note: At a time when NASA is focusing on education and inspiring the next generation of space explorers I find it rather odd that a NASA mission principal investigator, speaking in an official capacity, would be dumping on astronomers in such a public fashion. Why would anyone want to pursue a career in astronomy if a NASA mission PI says things like this in connection with their mission? Its also a bit baffling that a NASA PI, using their mission as a pulpit, pushes their own personal planetary nomenclature system – one that is at odds with what the agency and astronomical community has adopted.

For the record I think Pluto is a “planet”. It always was one. So are Ceres, Eris, Haumea, Makemake, etc. There are probably hundreds – maybe thousands – of planets in our solar system. Thousands of extrasolar planets – many far larger than Jupiter – in other solar system utterly unlike our own have been discovered that have forced many astronomers who are discovering these planets (the same ones who “don’t know what they are talking about” when it comes to planets) to reconsider what a “planet” really is and what constitutes a “solar system”. What do you call a planet-sized body that is moving through space and not orbiting a star? Recent studies suggest that there may be vast numbers of them.
One of the arguments used by partisans on both sides of the Pluto is/is not a planet issue is that not having a specific definition will cause people to be confused as to what a “planet” is. I would argue that more people are now probably confused as a result of arm waving on both sides of this discussion than might otherwise have been the case. If planetary and space scientists want their fields to be taken seriously then this goofy trash talking needs to stop – especially when done in concert with a taxpayer-funded mission.
I guess its no longer necessary to have professional discussions in the conduct of science when it comes to NASA. Snark matches are the new way to do science, so it would seem. That said, Jim Green’s comments are much more productive in this regard and should serve as the standard in such public discussions instead of counterproductive name calling.
More Pluto news

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.