NASA hints at discovery of new planets outside the solar system

Being purposefully vague, NASA has called the conference for 6pm GMT on 22 February to present new findings on planets that orbit stars other than our sun, otherwise known as exoplanets.

Stern is hardly one you would consider unbiased in this context.

In May of last year, Gillon and his fellow researchers published a paper in Nature - the same journal that this latest mysterious announcement will be included in - announcing the discovery of three planets orbiting an ultra cool dwarf star, just 40 light years from Earth. While school children around the world learn the names of the eight - or nine, including Pluto - planets in basic science classes, students would only be expected to account for the 12-25 biggest and most significant, according to the proposal.

The principal investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto has, along with five of his colleagues, submitted a proposal to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) calling for a change in the way a planet is defined.

The proposal does include a more detailed method for classifying planets, by which a planet is "a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters".

Stern et al. finds the definition rather problematic for a few reasons. The definition boils down to "round objects in space that are smaller than stars". The third criteria is also problematic as not only does it require a mathematical model of what a planet's zone is, it also requires "clearing" those zones.

Exoplanets, discovered regularly, renew hope among scientists of life elsewhere in the universe as many are found to resemble Earth. Nearly ironically, it does qualify our Moon as well as the moon of all other planets, and maybe a few spherical asteroids as well.

  • Carolyn Briggs