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Pluto sri.jpg
Mosaic, true-color image of Pluto based on eclipses of Pluto by its satellite, Charon.
Date of discovery 1930
Name of discoverer Clyde W. Tombaugh
Name origin Greco-Roman god of wealth and the underworld
Orbital characteristics
Primary Sun
Order from primary 10
Perihelion 29.65834067 AU
Aphelion 49.30503287 AU
Semi-major axis 39.48168677 AU
Titius-Bode prediction 77.2 AU
Circumference 188.925 AU
Orbital eccentricity 0.24880766
Sidereal year 248.09 a
Synodic year 366.73 da (1.004 a)
Avg. orbital speed 4.666 km/s
Inclination 17.14175° to the ecliptic
Rotational characteristics
Sidereal day -6.387230 da
Rotational speed 47.18 km/h
Axial tilt 119.591°
Physical characteristics
Mass 1.305 * 1022 kg (0.218% earth)
Density 2,030 kg/m³
Mean radius 1,195 km
Surface gravity 0.58 m/s² (0.0591 g)
Escape speed 1.2 km/s
Surface area 17,950,000 km² (3.519% earth)
Minimum temperature 33 K
Mean temperature 44 K
Maximum temperature 55 K
Number of moons 3 or more
Pluto is the second-largest known dwarf planet in the solar system (after Eris) and the tenth largest observed body directly orbiting the Sun.[1] Its name literally means "god of wealth" and is one of the two names for one of the brothers of Zeus; the other is Hades, or "god of the underworld." (The Romans used only the name Pluto for this particular Greek god.)

According to the International Astronomical Union, it no longer qualifies as a planet because it has not cleared its orbit of other objects.


In 1930, Clyde W. Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory surveyed the sky, looking for a planet beyond Neptune (called "Planet X") that other astronomers had predicted from calculations based on an erroneous value for Neptune's mass. Tombaugh knew nothing of the error, but found an object anyway, and named it Pluto.

But even he realized that Pluto was not large enough to be the predicted Planet X. Astronomers continued to search in vain for it, until Voyager 2 made its flyby of Neptune, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists determined from this flyby that Neptune was significantly heavier than previously supposed. Current theory predicts no more planets other than the eight now known, but still allows for many other objects, both in the classic asteroid belt and in the Kuiper Belt, essentially a second belt of asteroids and comets.

The dwarf planet controversy

Pluto(center) with moon Charon. NASA image

The discovery of Eris, a scatter-disk body 27% more massive than Pluto, caused a controversy concerning what does, and what does not, constitute a planet. If Pluto were to retain its historical designation of "planet," then Eris would also qualify. But Eris was held not to qualify because it was in a neighborhood with multiple other objects, a situation similar to those of similar bodies in the asteroid belt, namely Ceres and Eros.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union passed the following resolution:


The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System, except satellites, be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:

(1) A "planet"1 is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A "dwarf planet" is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape2, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d)is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects3, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as "Small Solar System Bodies".

1The eight planets are: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. 2An IAU process will be established to assign borderline objects into either dwarf planet and other categories. 3These currently include most of the Solar System asteroids, most Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), comets, and other small bodies. [2]

Under those rather strict criteria, Pluto does not qualify. For that reason, Pluto is no longer considered a planet. It shares the new "dwarf planet" category with Eris and with the asteroids Ceres and Eros.

Recently there have been efforts to restore Pluto's status as a planet.[3]

Known facts

Pluto has an elliptical orbit. It is usually further from the sun than any of the eight planets, but there are times due to its odd orbit when it is closer than Neptune.[4]

Pluto's Origin

Pluto was initially thought to have originally been a moon of Neptune that escaped into its own orbit around the Sun. But with the discovery of Charon in 1978, and the subsequent discoveries of its other moons Hydra and Nix, that theory became far less plausible. The current theory is that Pluto and Charon both formed from the solar nebula as the other planets in the solar system did. [5]

In popular fiction

Science fiction author Larry Niven once speculated on an "earlier generation" race of extraterrestrial beings that controlled the galaxy until it suffered mutual annihilation in a war with a revolting slave race. As part of that scenario, a member of that "slaver race" once had to make an emergency "landing" in a crippled spacecraft that could no longer brake to a safe approach speed. He then set a course for the earth, bailed out of his ship, and left the ship's autopilot with orders to crash-land on Neptune. Instead of that happening, the ship struck a moon of Neptune hard enough to knock it out of orbit; that moon became known as Pluto.

Pluto has also been a subject of speculation involving future efforts by humanity to colonize that body, efforts often complicated by the presence of extraterrestrial "campers" or even of pathogens, usually viruses, native to Pluto.


Pluto has at least three moons, the largest of which is Charon. (The size of Charon relative to Pluto is such that Pluto and Charon are often collectively considered to be a binary system. Due to their sizes, the center of rotation is not "inside" pluto, but rather above its surface. Rather than rotating around Pluto, Pluto and Charon rotate around a common center of gravity.) The others are named Hydra and Nix.


  2. "IAU0602: the Final IAU Resolution on the Definition of 'Planet' Ready for Voting," International Astronomical Union, 2005. Accessed January 14, 2008.

Related links

  • Hamilton, Calvin J. "Entry for 'Pluto'." Views of the Solar System, 2007. Accessed January 21, 2008.