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From The Editors Science

Should Pluto’s Planet Status Be Reinstated? The Debate Still Rages in the Astronomical Community

Pluto, the icy body in the outer reaches of the solar system, was considered the ninth planet in the system from the time it was discovered in 1930 up until 2006, when it was controversially reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the global authority for naming and designating celestial objects.

The IAU has since been at the receiving end by many scientists and astronomers who disagree with the union’s decision and have fiercely advocated for Pluto’s planetary status to be reinstated.

The contentious decision was based on the definition of a planet, which many scientists argue has been inconsistently applied in the case of Pluto.

In a scientific paper published in the journal Icarus in September last year, a group of scientists, led by the study’s main author Philip Metzger – a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida – maintain that the IAU’s definition of a planet is not in the interest of science and, hence, should be revisited.

“What we’re doing is fact-checking,” Metzger, was quoted by NBC News as having said.

“There are 120 examples I found of scientists in the recently published literature violating the IAU definition, calling something a planet even though the IAU definition says it’s not a planet,” he said.

“The reason planetary scientists do this is because the IAU definition is not useful for science,” Metzger added.

Pluto’s planetary status came into question in 2005 when astronomers at the California Institute of Astronomy (Caltech) –  a private doctorate-granting research university in Pasadena, California – discovered a Pluto-like celestial object in the distant solar system.

The object, which came to be known as Eres, was touted as a new addition to the planetary line-up at the time, but when more such objects were discovered in the Kuiper-belt neighborhood, the astronomical community was in a quandary over the definition of a planet.

Several definitions were considered and reconsidered before IAU called a press conference in Prague, in 2006, to give a new meaning to the term “planet,” thereby stripping Pluto of its planetary status and downgrading it to a “dwarf planet.”

The new resolution stated that in order for a solar system object in to qualify as a planet, it needed to meet three conditions:

  • It has to orbit the sun
  • It has to be rounded by its own gravity, for which it has to be large enough to allow its gravitation pull to shape it into a sphere
  • It has to be pretty much the only object in its orbit, meaning it has to be gravitationally dominant-enough to have evicted most objects in its orbital vicinity.

While Pluto meets the first two criteria hands down, it falls short of qualifying as a planet when it comes to the third condition, because its orbit is littered with other icy bodies exerting their own gravitational forces.

Although thirteen years have passed since that eventful September day when Pluto ceased to be a planet and became a “dwarf planet,” the debate over the controversial definition and Pluto’s standing in the planetary hierarchy still rages on in the astronomical community.

NASA’s principal investigator for New Horizons mission to Pluto, Alan Stern, and other like-minded scientists have rubbished the revised definition, saying that it is flawed and needs to be reversed.

Writing in The Washington Post in May 2018, Stern and co-author of the article, David Grinspoon – an American astrobiologist and senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona – stated that the IAU’s definition of a planet was “deeply flawed.”

“The process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome,” wrote Stern and Grinspoon.

“For one thing, it defines a planet as an object orbiting around our sun — thereby disqualifying the planets around other stars, ignoring the exoplanet revolution, and decreeing that essentially all the planets in the universe are not, in fact, planets,” they said.

“To add insult to injury, they amended their convoluted definition with the vindictive and linguistically paradoxical statement that “a dwarf planet is not a planet.” This seemingly served no purpose but to satisfy those motivated by a desire — for whatever reason — to ensure that Pluto was “demoted” by the new definition,” they wrote.

In fact, Stern was scheduled to debate Ron Ekers – former IAU president (2003 to 2006) – at the Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club on the definition of a planet and Pluto’s classification in our solar system in Washington, DC, on Monday.

Kuiper Belt

Kuiper Belt is the ring-shaped accumulation of matter made up gas, dust, planetesimals, asteroids, or collision debris – also known as the circumstellar disk – in the far reaches of the solar system.

It is home to three known dwarf planets, including Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake, in addition to other icy objects.

Ultima Thule is the latest Kuiper Belt object (KBO), which NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by as recently as New Year’s Day this year.

When it was thirty-three minutes past midnight in New York; when the ball had already dropped in Times Square to usher in 2019; when parties were in full swing across the city; history was made four billion miles out in space.

Technically, history happened in the blink of an eye, as NASA spacecraft New Horizons zipped past the tiny KBO at a lusty speed of 32,280 miles per hour – that’s 9 miles in a second, to put things in perspective.

However, confirmation of the historic flyby came only after an agonizing wait of six hours and eight minutes – that’s how long it took the radio signal from the robotic craft to travel through the void of space before it was plucked from the air by a NASA deep space radio dish in Madrid.

Coming back to the Pluto debate, Stern and Grinspoon summed it up extremely well when they wrote:

“The word “planet” predates and transcends science. Language is malleable and responsive to culture. Words are not defined by voting. Neither is scientific paradigm.”

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From The Editors Science

NASA Alert: Asteroid ‘2018 XE4’ to Zip Past Earth at 20,000 MPH on Boxing Day

According to NASA’s ‘Close Approach Data’ for near-Earth objects, or NEOs, an asteroid with an estimated diameter of 13 to 20 meters (43 to 95 feet) is fast approaching Earth at an astounding speed of 20,000 miles per hour.

Researchers tracking the space rock at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, expect the NASA-classified “small body” asteroid, nicknamed 2018 XE4, to fly past our planet at a distance of 1.2 million miles at 8:37 p.m. GMT (3:37 pm Eastern Time) on Boxing Day (December 26).

Although it’s going to miss us by a margin that’s 5.34 times the distance between Earth and Moon, it’s still too close for comfort in space terms.

Smaller asteroids that have struck Earth in the past have caused extensive destruction and mayhem; so, one can imagine the kind of damage an asteroid the size of 2018 XE4 traveling at more than 26 times the speed of sound would cause if it were to hit us.

The 2013 meteor that injured at least 1,500 people in Russia is a case in point.

The 66-foot-wide supersonic meteor smashed into the atmosphere above the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, sending shockwaves so powerful that 1,200 people were injured and more than 7,000 buildings in six cities were damaged.

The flash from the streaking meteor was brighter than the Sun and was seen as far away as Kazakhstan, 80 miles south, and Nizhny Tagil, nearly 300 miles to the north.

Nasa says: “As they orbit the Sun, Near-Earth Objects can occasionally approach close to Earth.

“As the primitive, leftover building blocks of the solar system formation process, comets and asteroids offer clues to the chemical mixture from which the planets formed some 4.6 billion years ago.

‘If we wish to know the composition of the primordial mixture from which the planets formed, then we must determine the chemical constituents of the leftover debris from this formation process – the comets and asteroids.”

For any Solar System body to qualify as a near-Earth object, its closest approach to the Sun has to be less than 1.3 astronomical units (AU), the equivalent of nearly 121 million miles.

With some 20,000 near-Earth asteroids and comets orbiting the Sun, NASA and other space agencies have been constantly tracking NEOs since the 1990s in a collective initiative called ‘Spaceguard.’

The biggest threat to Earth, however, is from a 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu, which has a 1-in-2,700 chance of smashing into Earth sometime between 2175 and 2196, say scientists.

The potentially hazardous object (PHO), “listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale,” is currently 54 million miles from Earth.

The Sun-orbiting asteroid has been in NASA’s crosshairs ever since its discovery by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project in 1999.

So focussed has the space agency been on Bennu that in 2016 it sent its ORISIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft to the asteroid on a sample-return mission.

After traveling through space for more than two years, the spacecraft finally reached the proximity of Bennu earlier this month.

Spectroscopic surveys of its surface revealed the presence of hydrated minerals, signifying that the space rock had interacted with liquid water at some point in its past.

Although NORISIS-REx’s onboard spectrometers didn’t detect water per se, they did find hydrogen and oxygen bonds called hydroxyls trapped in clay-bearing material all over Bennu’s rock-strewn topography.

Speaking at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in Washington DC, on Dec 10, Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the discovery was “evidence of liquid water in Bennu’s past.”

“The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in an agency press release.

Over the coming months, the NASA spaceship, which is on an asteroid probe and sample-return mission to Bennu, will make increasingly closer passes of the asteroid, entering orbit on New Year’s Eve.

It will then begin mapping the asteroid to identify the best possible sample site before making a slow descent to the surface to collect samples using its robotic arm.

OSIRIS-REx is capable of making as many as three attempts at collecting the samples, after which it will have to begin its return journey, with its precious cargo of Bennu samples safely tucked away inside a Sample-Return Capsule (SRC).

The SRC is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land at the US Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sep 24, 2023.

“When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system,” Simon said in the press release.

“We targeted Bennu precisely because we thought it had water-bearing minerals and — by analogy with the carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that we’ve been studying — organic material,” Space.com quoted Lauretta as saying.

“That still remains to be seen — we have not detected the organics — but it definitely looks like we’ve gone to the right place,” she added.

If NASA can land a spacecraft on an asteroid 54 million miles away and bring back samples from there, it can pretty much nuke Bennu to smithereens should the need arise.

So, rest easy in the knowledge that the likes of NASA and other space agencies of the world are keeping a watchful eye on the Bennus of space.

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From The Editors Science

Cutting Edge Accomplishments of Science in 2016

While the year 2016 has been in the news for a number of negative reasons such as the Syrian situation, the ISIS crisis, the acrimonious U.S. presidential elections, and the demise of well-known celebrities; some exceptional advances made in science and technology balances out the negatives to a great extent.

We have compiled below the most groundbreaking scientific achievements of last year that are bound to have a global impact and benefit mankind as a whole. The 5 breakthroughs spoken about below are in the order of our preference and may differ from others’ perception of the order.

1. Advances in genetic engineering has proved to be an elixir of life for cancer patients:

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Topping the list of these scientific breakthroughs is the fact that we are much nearer to a cancer cure than ever before.

A genetic engineering implement scientifically named CRISPR-Cas9 has been successfully used by scientists to develop immune cells in the human body that have the capability of attacking malignant cells in a cancer patient.

Using a process a team of Chinese scientists harvested white blood cells from cancer sufferers and genetically manipulated them to attack lung cancer cells without any collateral damage to healthy cells; and they were successful in treating lung cancer, one of the biggest killers in the world, by reintroducing the genetically modified cells back into the patient.

These, however, are early trials with promising results, though. If these tests prove their worthiness in further trials, oncologists the world over may have access to one of the most potent treatments for cancer.

2. Tesla’s advancement in self-driving cars may soon become a common sight on the streets of USA and elsewhere:

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Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, made an amazing announcement last year that took the technology industry by surprise. Tesla plans to equip all their future cars with the hardware and software needed for total autonomous control – no human intervention whatsoever.
Now, this would be a sight to behold!

With this great scientific and technological leap, people may benefit in terms of lives saved as most car crashes are the result of human error.

Elon Musk has gone to the extent of saying that he envisions a future when human-driven cars would become illegal.

3. Reusable rockets have become a reality:

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Rockets in the past were used to launch their payload into orbit and become useless for further launches making it a very expensive proposition indeed.

However, recent tests, not only by Elon Musk’s SpaceX but by Jeff Bezos Blue Origin as well, have proved that rockets or boosters can return back safely to earth, with what aerospace engineers refer to as “soft landings”, after completing their space mission, to be used again and again for multiple launches resulting in drastic cost reduction in space-related expeditions.

These successful “soft landings” will make it cost worthy for ordinary humans to enjoy the experience of space travel for recreational purposes, seemingly, in the not too distant future.

Colonization of other heavenly bodies like Mars and the probability of confirming alien life is also not just science fiction anymore – it is a distinct possibility of the future – well, there will be a lot of skeptics in so far as finding alien life is concerned.

4. Paralyzed man regaining the sense of touch with an artificial hand:

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Although this may sound like a sci-fi story from the Marvel Comics franchise, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, California, has made this into a reality by creating an artificial limb that enables a paralyzed person to get back his sense of touch and feel.

Nathan Copeland paralyzed for the last ten years from an accident, has regained the sense of touch with the robotic arm by just using his brain power.

The best part of this great achievement is the “touch feedback” that the researchers have been able to add to the robotic limb. This feature allows Nathan Copeland to feel the amount of pressure applied to his artificial arm.

“I can feel just about every finger — it’s a really weird sensation,” Copeland declared after the successful surgery. “Sometimes it feels electrical and sometimes its pressure, but for the most part, I can tell most of the fingers with definite precision. It feels like my fingers are getting touched or pushed.”

If this is not a groundbreaking achievement then what else is it?

5. The discovery by astronomers of a habitable planet, potentially speaking, near Proxima Centauri:


Astronomers have been exploring the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life (intelligent or non-intelligent) ever since man’s interest in the infinite space beyond the earth’s atmosphere started.

The long continuing quest of man to discover life elsewhere in the vast expanse of our universe took a huge step when a possibly habitable planet was discovered in the Alpha Centauri System, the closest solar system to earth.

The planet named ‘Proxima b’ is located around 4.2 light years or 25 trillion miles from Earth.

The existence of the Proxima b was announced in August 2016 by the European Southern Observatory.

Space researchers believe that its nearness to Earth makes it a possibility for a robotic exploration of the planet.

So, if Stephen Hawking’s prediction of the end of our planet in 1000 years is true, this can prove to be our best alternative option.

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From The Editors Science

Elon Musk – Entrepreneur, Innovator and a Child at Heart

Elon Musk, founder, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, co-founder, CEO and Product Architect of Tesla, co-founder and Chairman of Solar City, co-founder of Open AI – a non-profit Artificial Intelligence research company, an estimated net worth of $11.5 billion as of June 2016, ranked 21 on Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People in December 2016, is after all human, and the child in him was evident in a recently released video by National Geographic capturing his reaction to the successful launch and landing of Falcon 9 rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida on December 21, 2015.

The momentous event including the launch and the ultimately safe and upright landing back on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral and the post landing jubilation of SpaceX employees were witnessed live via YouTube streaming broadcast.

However, what one did not get to see then, was the reaction of Elon Musk which was captured on video by a crew following him during the launch and return; the video, however, was recently released by National Geographic.

In the Nat Geo clip, soon after the countdown and the successful launch, Elon Musk says, “It’s good baby” and is seen running out of the command center into the open to watch Falcon 9 rocket blazing up into the night sky.

“Come on” he urges looking up with folded hands and looks even more tensed before the landing, continuing to look up with hands still folded. At one point, probably expecting the worst, he says, “Oh, where is it? This is bad. It’s actually bad.” The video clearly captures his grimacing, heavy breathing, looking up then, apparently, looking back at someone.

Then suddenly the sonic boom on re-entry of Falcon 9 into the earth’s atmosphere is heard and finally the near-perfect, if not the perfect, landing of the craft on the launch pad is witnessed by an elated Musk and cheering SpaceX employees.

The child in Elon Musk suddenly explodes as soon as Falcon 9 lands on the launch pad in an upright position. In his euphoria, he is seen running towards the command center calling out, “It’s standing up.”

On entering the command center he says to nobody in particular “when it started coming in it sounded like an explosion.” He then rushes to the monitor high-fiving his colleagues on the way.

On seeing the rocket on the monitor screen standing upright on the launch pad he releases his emotions, “What! Holy smokes man!” he says.

After the ecstatic childish reaction, he was back to his sober demeanour and this is what he had to say about the event:

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“It’s kind of amazing that this window of opportunity is opened for life to go beyond earth and we just don’t know how long that window is going to be open. But the thing that gets me most fired up is that creating a self-sustaining civilization on Mars which would be the greatest adventure ever – ever in human history. It would be so exciting to wake up in the morning and think that, that’s what’s happening”.

The successful landing in December 2015 was the first for SpaceX after many failed attempts and since then SpaceX has successfully landed back many such rockets after successfully delivering their payloads into space.

The company, however, experienced a major setback, when in September 2016, one such SpaceX Falcon9 rocket exploded on its launch pad destroying the Israeli satellite it was expected to launch into orbit.

After the massive setback in September, SpaceX is in the process of investigating the cause of the explosion and trying to iron out the glitches that caused the explosion with the target of a January 2017 re-launch.

Elon Musk is a man on many missions with a clear vision of his goals. Setbacks like the one in September 2016 is not the first he has experienced, and may not be the last, but the visionary that he is will certainly not deter him from pushing on and realizing his dreams.