Click on image for full size
Image courtesy Dr. R. Albrecht (ESA/ESO Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility) and NASA.

Pluto demoted - no longer a Planet!
News story originally written on August 24, 2006

Pluto has been officially demoted from its status as a planet. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), at a meeting in August 2006, voted on their first "official" definition of a planet. Based on this new definition, Pluto is no longer a planet. According to the IAU's definition, our Solar System has eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. In the new scheme, Pluto will be one of several "dwarf planets" in the Solar System; but "dwarf planets" are not considered true planets.

The controversy over Pluto's status as a planet has been brewing for years. Astronomers have long hypothesized the existence of a large class of icy objects, called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), on the fringes of our Solar System. The first KBO was discovered in the early 1990s. Scientists recognized that Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, was really "just" one of many KBOs. In terms of its composition and its orbit, Pluto is unlike the other eight planets; but is quite similar to other objects in the Kuiper Belt. Until 2003 Pluto was still the largest of the KBOs yet discovered. However, the discovery of 2003 UB313 in that year further called into question Pluto's status as a full-fledged planet.

There is still some controversy and disagreement amongst astronomers about the new definition of a "planet". We will have to wait and see whether the new definition "sticks" or not. For now, there are three official classes of objects in our Solar System: planets, dwarf planets, and small solar system bodies. Planets include the eight traditional planets from Mercury to Neptune, but no longer Pluto. Pluto is joined amongst the dwarf planets by 2003 UB313 and the large asteroid Ceres. Several other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) will likely join the ranks of the dwarf planets, including Sedna and Quaoar. Small solar system bodies include most asteroids, comets, and meteoroids.

Depending on how the debate amongst astronomers plays out, we will adjust the references to Pluto on the Windows to the Universe web site in the coming weeks to reflect current scientific thinking. Stay tuned!

Last modified August 24, 2006 by Randy Russell.

You might also be interested in:

Cool It! Game

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more


Pluto is a frigid ball of ice and rock that orbits far from the Sun on the frozen fringes of our Solar System. Considered a planet, though a rather odd one, from its discovery in 1930 until 2006, it was...more

What is a planet?

Do you know what a planet is? If so, you are doing better than professional astronomers! Right now astronomers aren't quite sure how to define a planet. Maybe you've heard that some astronomers think Pluto...more

Eris - a dwarf planet

Eris is a dwarf planet in our Solar System. Eris was one of the first three objects classified as a dwarf planet, along with Pluto and Ceres. Eris was first spotted in January 2005. Eris is a large sphere...more

Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNO)

The outer edge of our Solar System is not empty. There are many huge spheres of rock and ice out near Pluto's orbit and beyond. Astronomers have a name for everything further out than the planet Neptune....more

New planetoid named Sedna discovered

Astronomers have discovered a new planetoid at the far edge of our Solar System. The new object, named Sedna, is probably almost as big as the smallest planet, Pluto. Sedna is very, very far away. It is...more

Pluto demoted - no longer a Planet!

Pluto has been officially demoted from its status as a planet. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), at a meeting in August 2006, voted on their first "official" definition of a planet....more

A Perfect Place for Penguins!

Scientists have recently discovered that thousands of Adelie Penguins thrive in patches of the chilly Southern Ocean near Antarctica's coastline. In these special areas of the ocean, called polynyas,...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA