Our solar system is home to hundreds of strange, tiny worlds called dwarf planets, and new discoveries reveal the secrets of these mysterious places.
Dwarf planets are worlds that are too small to be considered full-fledged planets, but too large to fall into smaller categories. In recent years, there’s been a lot of hubbub about Pluto losing its status as one of the planets of the solar system.
Pluto is no longer considered the ninth planet in the series of major planetary objects, but instead is now just one of the many so-called “dwarf planets.” The debate started anew after the New Horizons mission passed by Pluto in 2015, revealing a world of surprising geological complexity. As of 2017, delegates from the mission are trying to get Pluto’s planethood status back.
A dwarf planet is a planetary-mass object that is neither a planet nor a natural satellite. That is, it is in direct orbit of a star, and is massive enough for its gravity to compress it into a hydrostatically equilibrious shape (usually a spheroid), but has not cleared the neighborhood of other material around its orbit.
The term dwarf planet was adopted in 2006 as part of a three-way categorization of bodies orbiting the Sun, brought about by an increase in discoveries of objects farther away from the Sun than Neptune that rivaled Pluto in size, and finally precipitated by the discovery of an even more massive object, Eris.
The exclusion of dwarf planets from the roster of planets by the IAU has been both praised and criticized; it was said to be the “right decision” by astronomer Mike Brown, who discovered Eris and other new dwarf planets, but has been rejected by Alan Stern, who had coined the term dwarf planet in April 1991.