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Pluto faces expulsion from planetary league

Astronomers to rule on body's status

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The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has gathered in Prague to finally settle a matter of galactic import: whether Pluto is in fact a planet or should be relegated to the second division of Kuiper Belt Objects and similar detritus.

Astonomers have to date failed dismally to agree what exactly constitutes a planet, as demonstrated by last year's Xena controversy which saw stargazers claim they'd discovered the solar system's tenth full-fat planet, while others used the opportunity to call for Pluto and Xena's classification as minor planets.

The matter may soon be settled once and for all, The Detroit Free Press reports, as the IAU is scheduled to "consider a resolution that defines a planet". The committee writing the resolution is maintaining a stony silence as to what it will finally recommend, but whatever it decides will inevitably cause a rumpus in either the pro or con Pluto camps.

Steve Maran, author of Astronomy for Dummies told the The Detroit Free Press: "This is such a hot issue. They never rule on things like this. There's a lot more to it than science," alluding to the fact that Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American.

Indeed, the US has a soft spot for Pluto, and any atttempt to downgrade its status will certainly upset large numbers of fanatical schoolkids such as those who in 2000 bombarded the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York with "hate mail" after it omitted the planet from a solar system exhibit.

Robert Williams, a vice president of the International Astronomical Union who's "deeply involved in the deliberations on Pluto", admitted: "My niece said to me, 'Are you going to demote Pluto?'."

Williams did, nonetheless, show his icy scientific cool with: "If that's the way it is, that's what we do. It's not written in stone anywhere there's got to be a numerable number of planets. If it upsets schoolchildren, I regret that." ®

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