02 June 2008

What to Call Them?

As far as Deep-Sky Planner is concerned, minor planets shall henceforth be called asteroids ...

While implementing support for minor planets in late 2006 for Deep-Sky Planner, I had a real dilemma as to whether these objects should be called 'minor planets' or 'asteroids'. The IAU meeting in Prague the previous summer had just brought the term 'dwarf planet' onto the world stage, and demoted Pluto to some mysterious status that still befuddles me. The term 'minor planet' seemed a little like damaged goods.

On the other hand, the Minor Planet Center was the purveyor of orbital elements for these beasts, so the term 'minor planet' must have been the best moniker. So 'minor planet' stuck.

In the November 2006 issue of Sky & Telescope, Editor In Chief Rick Fienberg wrote about the IAU shenanigans in his Spectrum piece. I read it and agreed with his argument against redefining Pluto and the confusing term 'dwarf planet'. At that time I thought about asking Rick about the term 'asteroid' as opposed to 'minor planet', but I pressed on with development, and so it was.

Fast forward to 2008, and a bit of serendipity. I ran into Dr. Fienberg at NEAF in April. I asked him about my dilemma and whether he still felt as he did when he wrote that Spectrum piece in 2006. His feelings hadn't changed, and he liked 'asteroid'. That clinched my decision to make the change to 'asteroid'.

As for Pluto, it never got demoted in Deep-Sky Planner. I hope the IAU reinstates its planet-hood when they next meet in 2009. That seems befitting for the International Year of Astronomy.