It’s quite the title for any astronomer, but years after leading the charge to no longer consider Pluto as a planet, Mike Brown remains the Man Who Killed Pluto.
If you can believe it, he still gets hate mail for creating that situation.
But there have also been some advances Brown has been a part of.
A professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, he joined Simi Sara to talk about Pluto, and one of his more recent discoveries.
Ten years later people are still peeved about Pluto
Brown says he gets hate mail at least once a day.
“And I consider that a success, it means that people are thinking about the solar system, and they care about it, and they care about it enough to send something rude to me.”
He says it died down for a bit, but since it was in the news this summer with the flybys, it’s picked back up again.
“I think people didn’t really understand very well why Pluto wasn’t a planet, and I think that’s still the case. People have not heard very good explanations, even though it all makes perfect scientific sense, and the emotions are pretty high around it.”
And what are they upset about?
“Just that Pluto’s not a planet and astronomers are big meanies and they should have kept Pluto a planet just because.”
Brown says he understand why they’re sentimental.
“They grew up with this nine planet solar system and I can understand how it feels to be told ‘oh no, your whole concept of what the solar system is like has been incorrect.'”
But it has been incorrect.
Pluto is just a tiny ball of ice
It’s nothing like the other planets.
So what really happened to change Pluto’s status from planet to just another piece of flying debris?
According to Brown, starting from about 1992 and for the next couple of decades, astronomers were finding more and more objects out in this region beyond Neptune where Pluto lives, which we now call the Kuiper Belt.
“And we finally realized that the only reason Pluto had been called a planet was becuase it was the only thing known out there and nobody knew how big it was at first.”
Now we know it’s tiny, doesn’t have very much mass and there are thousands and thousands of objects out there like it.
“It’s just one of many things. And so this Kuiper Belt region, it’s kind of like the asteriod belt between Mars and Jupiter – it’s just this band of debris, and Pluto’s just a part of this band of debris.”
10 years later we may have a ninth planet again
Brown has also been part of the recent discovery.
“We now actually have evidence that there really is a ninth planet out there, in the very distant part of the solar system, much beyond this region where Pluto and the other Kuiper Belt objects are.”
He says it’s 5,000 times more massive that Pluto.
“Right now I’d say we have very good evidence that it exists.”
Brown thinks if they can find it, it will be the biggest story ever in astronomy.
“We know it’s out there, we can see its gravitational effects, we now just have to find exactly where it is.”