Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, and NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive at this dwarf planet on March 6, 2015. Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper belt, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will arrive at this dwarf planet on July 15, 2015. These two events will make 2015 an exciting year for solar system exploration and discovery. But there is much more to this story than mere science. I expect 2015 will be the year when general consensus, built upon our new knowledge of these two objects, will return Pluto and add Ceres to our family of solar system planets.

The efforts of a very small clique of Pluto-haters within the International Astronomical Union (IAU) plutoed Pluto in 2006. Of the approximately 10,000 internationally registered members of the IAU in 2006, only 237 voted in favor of the resolution redefining Pluto as a “dwarf planet” while 157 voted against; the other 9,500 members were not present at the closing session of the IAU General Assembly in Prague at which the vote to demote Pluto was taken. Yet Pluto’s official planetary status was snatched away.

Ceres and Pluto are both spheroidal objects, like Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s part of the agreed upon definition of a planet. They both orbit a star, the Sun, like Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune. That’s also part of the widely accepted definition of a planet.

Unlike the larger planets, however, Ceres, like Pluto, according to the IAU definition, “has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” The asteroid belt is, apparently, Ceres’ neighborhood while the Kuiper Belt is Pluto’s neighborhood – though no definition of a planet’s neighborhood exists, and no agreed upon understanding of what “clearing the neighborhood” yet exists. Furthermore, no broad-based agreement exists as to why “clearing the neighborhood” need be a requirement in order for an object to be considered a planet.

Some planetary astronomers would argue that were the Earth placed in the Kuiper Belt, it would not be able to clear its neighborhood and thus would not be considered, by the IAU definition, a planet; apparently location matters. Here a planet, there not a planet. I’d argue that location shouldn’t matter; instead, the intrinsic properties of the objects themselves should matter more. And so we are led back to Ceres and Pluto.

Never before visited by human spacecraft, Ceres and Pluto, as we will soon bear witness, are both evolving, changing worlds. Yesterday, Ceres and Pluto were strangers, distant, barely known runt members of our solar system. By the end of this calendar year, however, we will have showered both objects with our passion and our attention, we will have welcomed them both into our embrace. And we almost certainly will once again call both of them planets.

Ceres, temporarily a planet

Ceres was discovered on New Year’s Day in 1801, by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a member of an international team of astronomers dubbed the Celestial Police, who were searching for a supposedly missing planet in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. When discovered, Ceres was immediately recognized as a planet, the eighth one known at the time (neither Neptune nor Pluto had been discovered yet).

But Ceres does still stand out. It’s the largest asteroid, by far, nearly 1,000 kilometers across (twice as large in diameter as Vesta, the second largest asteroid), though not perfectly spherical in shape.

As happened inside Earth and other planets, planetary scientists think that long ago, the denser material in Ceres separated from the lighter material and sank to form a core.

Astronomers think Ceres is rich in water – as much as one-third of Ceres might be water – and may have a thin atmosphere. Bright, white spots on its surface might even be large frozen lakes. Ceres may, in fact, have as much fresh water as Earth, have Earth-like polar caps, and might even have a sub-surface liquid ocean layer, like Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

But within a few years, other objects in the asteroid belt were discovered and Ceres no longer seemed to stand out as far from the crowd. In 1802, the great astronomer William Herschel suggested that Ceres and Pallas and any other smaller solar system objects should be called asteroids – meaning star-like. In telescope images, they were so tiny that they looked point-like, like stars, rather than disk-like, like planets. And so, more than a century before Pluto was discovered, Ceres was plutoed.

Credit — https://theconversation.com/