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Curious Kids: Why does it matter if Pluto is a planet or a dwarf planet? – The Conversation

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Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. Have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Send it to CuriousKidsCanada@theconversation.com.

Why does it matter if Pluto is a planet or a dwarf planet? Because for me it just makes it more confusing in our solar system. I know that some things in space are planets and some are stars and some are other names like moons or comets. Dwarf planet is a more different name and I think it just makes it more confusing. —
Timmy, 11, Kitchener, Ont.

“Comet,” “star” and “planet” are category names that immediately tell you something important about what they describe.

Our solar system consists of the sun, planets (which orbit around the sun) and small bodies (which either orbit around the sun or planets). The “small bodies” category is divided up into even smaller categories, mostly depending on the shape and size of orbits.




Read more:
What is a dwarf planet?


In 1801, astronomers discovered Ceres, which was initially categorized as a “planet.” Astronomers measured that it was much smaller than the other known planets. Soon, a lot of smaller objects were discovered on orbits very close to Ceres. These small bodies were categorized as “asteroids” and we have since discovered hundreds of thousands of these in the asteroid belt.

A black and white photograph of Ceres, which looks like an eclipsed moon

Ceres, seen from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

New discoveries

A similar process of discovery and re-categorization happened for small bodies further out in the solar system.

Pluto was discovered in 1930 and was called the ninth planet in our solar system for many decades. But astronomers soon learned that Pluto was pretty different from the other eight planets: it’s on a tilted orbit and it’s way, way smaller than the other planets.

Over the years, astronomers discovered more and more small, planet-like objects that crossed Pluto’s orbit. These are now categorized as “Kuiper Belt objects.” It was looking more and more like Pluto might fit in better with the category of Kuiper Belt objects than with planets.




Read more:
How we discovered 840 minor planets beyond Neptune – and what they can tell us


In 2005, a new object was discovered in the outer solar system, Eris, that is even heavier than Pluto. This led astronomers to consider if both Eris and Pluto are planets or not. Astronomers thought this was an important enough decision that the International Astronomical Union voted on it in 2006. Astronomers decided that rather than demoting Pluto to a plain old Kuiper Belt object, they would make a new category of small body called a “dwarf planet.” Pluto and Eris would both be part of this new category.

How planets form

Solar systems like ours form from big clouds of dust and gas that collapse into disks around young stars, but astronomers are still learning exactly how that process works. We use telescopes to look carefully at forming solar systems far away, but they are so far that it’s really hard to see the planets forming directly.

A planetesimal — a baby planet — first forms from clumps of dust in a disc orbiting a young star. Planetesimals then grab nearby pebbles, dust and sometimes even smaller planetesimals with their gravity, which gets stronger as they get bigger. When they get to be a few hundred kilometres across, they have enough gravity to pull themselves into a round shape, which is the definition of a dwarf planet.

two photographs and corresponding illustrations of debris around a young star

The two images at top reveal debris disks around young stars uncovered in archival images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The illustration beneath each image depicts the orientation of the debris disks.
(NASA/ESA, R. Soummer, Ann Feild (STScI))

Measuring small bodies in our solar system, including dwarf planets, and comparing them with computer simulations is another way to see how our solar system formed. Our current theory is that there must have been a lot of dwarf planets that formed in our solar system.

Ceres, in the asteroid belt, and Pluto, Eris and about a dozen other Kuiper Belt objects are big enough to be in the dwarf planet category. This means that while they are planetesimals that grew big enough to be round, they did not develop a gravity strong enough to grab all the other planetesimals near their orbit.

Other solar systems

Astronomers have now measured more than 5,000 exoplanets, planets in other solar systems. We won’t be able to measure dwarf planets there for a very long time, but the ones we’ve found in our own solar system can teach us about how planets form everywhere.


Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsCanada@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit — adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.


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NASA will launch the CAPSTONE mission on Monday, June 27 – electriccitymagazine.ca

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Rocket Lab's Electron rocket sits atop the launch pad at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand for a rehearsal before the CAPSTONE launch.

A small satellite is preparing to pave the way for something much greater: a fully grown lunar space station. NASA’s CAPSTONE satellite is scheduled to launch on Monday and then travel to a unique lunar orbit on the Pathfinder mission Artemis programwhich seeks to return humans to the moon later this decade.

capstone He rides aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, which will take off from the private company’s Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand. Rocket Lab made headlines in May using a helicopter to catch a falling booster missile. CAPSTONE is scheduled to launch at 6 AM ET on June 27 with live coverage starting an hour earlier. You can watch the event in the agency website or ApplicationOr, you can watch it on the live stream below.

NASA Live: The official broadcast of NASA TV

About a week after the CAPSTONE mission, the probe’s flight will be available through NASA Eyes on the solar system Interactive 3D visualization of data in real time.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission will send a microwave-sized satellite into near corona orbit (NRHO) around the moon. The satellite will be the first to sail its way around this unique lunar orbit, testing it for the planned date Moon Gatea small space station intended to allow a permanent human presence on the moon.

NRHO is special in that it is where the gravitational force of the Moon and Earth interact. This orbit would theoretically keep the spacecraft in a “beautiful gravitational spot” in a near-stable orbit around the Moon, according to to NASA. Therefore NRHO is ideal because it will require less fuel than conventional orbits and will allow the proposed lunar space station to maintain a stable line of communication with Earth. But before NASA builds its gateway into this highly elliptical orbit, the space agency will use CAPSTONE — which is owned and operated by Colorado-based Advanced Space — to test its orbital models.

Artist’s concept of CAPSTONE.
GIF: NASA/Daniel Rutter

Six days after launch from Earth, the upper stage of the Electron rocket will launch the CAPSTONE satellite on its journey to the Moon. The 55-pound (25-kilogram) cube vehicle will perform the rest of the four-month solo journey. Once on the moon, CAPSTONE will test the orbital dynamics of its orbit for about six months. The satellite will also be used to test spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation technology and unidirectional range capabilities that could eventually reduce the need for future spacecraft to communicate with mission controllers on Earth and wait for signals from other spacecraft to relay.

NASA is systematically putting together the pieces for the agency’s planned return to the Moon. The The fourth and final rehearsal for the space agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) went wellpaving the way for a possible launch in late August.

more: This small satellite linked to the moon can make a path to the lunar space station

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Astronaut view of New Zealand's North Island – Earth.com

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Today’s Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory features the North Island of New Zealand. The photo was captured as the International Space Station (ISS) approached the southernmost extent of its prograde 51.6 degree orbit. 

From this vantage point – and with the perfect weather conditions – astronauts can get a clear view of the North Island of New Zealand, according  to ESA.

“Looking towards the northwest, the astronaut photographer captured the mottled-green island that separates the Tasman Sea from the South Pacific Ocean. On the other side of Cook Strait, South Island peeks out from beneath the cloud cover,” reports ESA.

“Seven bays surround the North Island and define its distinctive shape. The inland landscape includes grasslands (lighter green areas), forests (darker green areas), volcanic plateaus, and mountain ranges formed from sedimentary rocks.”

Lake Taupō, located in the center of the North Island, is a crater lake inside a caldera formed by a supervolcanic eruption. The lake borders the active volcano Mount Ruapehu, which has the highest peak in New Zealand. 

“The volcanic nature of the island arises from its location on the tectonic plate boundary between the Indo-Australian and Pacific Plates,” says ESA. “This plate boundary is part of the vast Pacific Ring of Fire, and leads to significant geothermal activity and earthquakes in the region. Additional volcanoes, including Egmont Volcano (Mount Taranaki), also dot the North Island landscape.”

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

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Artemis 1 moon mission could launch as soon as late August – Space.com

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NASA officials have declared the Artemis 1 moon rocket’s most recent “wet dress rehearsal” a success and are hopeful the mission can get off the ground as soon as late August.

The Artemis 1 stack — a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket topped by an Orion capsule — is scheduled to roll back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on July 1, where the massive vehicle will undergo repairs and preparations for its coming launch. 

Artemis 1, the first launch for the SLS, will send an uncrewed Orion on a roughly month-long mission around the moon. The mission has experienced several delays, and most recently the rocket’s certification to fly has been held up by incomplete fueling tests — a key part of the wet dress rehearsal, a three-day series of trials designed to gauge a new vehicle’s readiness for flight. 

Related: NASA’s Artemis 1 moon mission explained in photos 

The Artemis 1 stack first rolled from the VAB to KSC’s Pad 39B in mid-March, to prep for a wet dress rehearsal that began on April 1. But three separate attempts to fill the SLS with cryogenic propellants during that effort failed, sending the stack back to the VAB for repairs on April 25. The most recent wet dress try, which wrapped up on Monday (June 20), didn’t go perfectly, but NASA has deemed it good enough to proceed with preparations for launch.

Operators were able to fully fuel SLS for the first time, bringing the launch simulation much further along than any of the attempts in April. A leak from the core stage’s engine cooling system “umbilical” line was detected during Monday’s fueling test, but mission managers determined that the deviation didn’t pose a safety risk and continued with the simulation’s terminal count. That ended up being the right decision, Artemis 1 team members said.  

Mission operators were able to run a “mask” for the leak in the ground launch sequencer software, which permitted computers in mission control to acknowledge the malfunction without flagging it as a reason to halt the countdown, according to Phil Weber, senior technical integration manager at KSC. Weber joined other agency officials on a press call Friday (June 24) to discuss the plans for Artemis 1 now that the wet dress is in the rear view mirror.

The software mask allowed the count to continue through to the handoff from the mission control computers to the automated launch sequencer (ALS) aboard the SLS at T-33 seconds, which ultimately terminated the count at T-29 seconds. 

“[ALS] was really the prize for us for the day,” Weber said during Friday’s call. “We expected … it was going to break us out [of the countdown] because the ALS looks for that same measurement, and we don’t have the capability to mask it onboard.” 

It was unclear immediately following the recent wet dress if another one would be required, but mission team members later put that question to rest.

“At this point, we’ve determined that we have successfully completed the evaluations and required work we intended to complete for the dress rehearsal,” Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for Common Exploration Systems at NASA headquarters, said on Friday’s call. He added that NASA teams now have the “go ahead to proceed” with preparations for Artemis 1’s launch.

Before it can be rolled back to the VAB, however, the stack will undergo further maintenance at Pad 39B, including repairs to the quick-disconnect component on the aft SLS umbilical, which was responsible for Monday’s hydrogen leak. 

There’s also one more test technicians need to perform at the pad. Hot-firing the hydraulic power units (HBUs), part of the SLS’ solid rocket boosters, was originally part of the wet dress countdown but was omitted when the countdown was aborted. Those tests will be completed by Saturday (June 25), according to Lanham. Following the hot-fire tests, operators will then spend the weekend offloading the HBUs’ hydrazine fuel.

Once back in the VAB, NASA officials estimate it’ll take six to eight weeks of work to get Artemis 1 ready to roll back to Pad 39B for an actual liftoff. Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager at KSC, outlined some of the planned maintenance on Friday’s call. 

Related: NASA’s Artemis program of lunar exploration

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Among other tasks, technicians will perform standard vehicle inspections, hydrogen leak repairs, “late-stow” for the payloads flying on Orion, and software loads to the SLS core stage and upper stage. They will also install flight batteries.

“Ultimately, we want to get to our flight termination system testing,” Lanham said. “Once that’s complete, we’ll be able to perform our final inspections in all the volumes of the vehicle and do our closeouts.”

After that work is complete, the Artemis 1 stack will roll out from the VAB once again, making the eight to 11-hour crawl back to Pad 39B on July 1. Whitmeyer said on Friday that the late-August launch window for Artemis 1, which opens on Aug. 23 and lasts for one week, is “still on the table.”

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