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New Horizons team looks at pictures
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern’s jaw drops as he ogles the first pictures to be sent back from the probe’s Pluto flyby, shown on a fellow team member’s laptop. (Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA)

Can you say “bullshit” at NASA? The principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission did, in an outburst directed at the tortuous rules that led to Pluto’s reclassification as a dwarf planet.

“It’s bullshit,” Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, told Tech Insider – with the clear intent of being quoted.

To call B.S. like that isn’t surprising for Stern, who has worked for more than a quarter-century to get a spacecraft to the mysterious world on the solar system’s edge. The success of the July 14 flyby has put Pluto in a new light, with 11,000-foot-high ice mountains, flowing glaciers of frozen nitrogen and hints of a subsurface ocean.

Pluto. Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Pluto. Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

When you also consider that Pluto has an extended atmosphere and five moons, who could consider it anything but an honest-to-goodness planet?

The International Astronomical Union, that’s who.

Nine years ago, only months after New Horizons was launched, members of the IAU approved a hastily drawn-up set of rules that defined planets as objects that go around the sun, are big enough to crush themselves into roundish balls by the force of gravity alone, and have “cleared the neighborhood around their orbits.”

They said Pluto didn’t satisfy that third, ill-defined condition. As a result, Pluto was deemed not to be a planet, but a member of the newly defined category of “dwarf planets.” Which were not considered planets.

The IAU’s decision still has plenty of defenders …

… But there’s no denying that the process was fraught with politicking and imprecision, as I explain in my book, “The Case for Pluto.”

Stern has no quibble with the term “dwarf planet.” Heck, he claims the term was his own creation. But to say dwarf planets aren’t planets?

That’s what set off Stern’s B.S. detector.

Will the New Horizons mission cause the IAU to reconsider its stance, perhaps at the organization’s triennial General Assembly in Honolulu next month? That’s unlikely.

Over the years, the IAU’s leaders have repeatedly signaled that the last thing they want to do is revisit the Pluto problem. But the rest of us could well be unscientifically swayed by New Horizons’ views of the dwarf planet. The more we get to know the planet with a heart, the less inclined future generations will be to shut it completely out of the planetary clubhouse. And that ain’t bullshit.

Update for 12:45 p.m. PT July 31: During a follow-up phone call, Stern told GeekWire that even he doesn’t expect the IAU to change its mind. “I think the way it’s going to change is with a challenge to the IAU from an outside organization,” he said. There’s a clue to Stern’s thinking in the travel schedule for the members of the New Horizons science team: They won’t be sharing any of their results at the IAU meeting in Hawaii, but they will have a featured forum when the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meets in November near Washington, D.C.

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