BALTIMORE — Ejected a decade ago from its place among the planets, the distant, icy world of Pluto still has its admirers.
The runt of the litter and ninth in line from the sun, Pluto was – for 75 years after its discovery – considered a peer of hefty Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. And then one day it wasn’t.
“People like to root for the underdog,” said Kirby Runyon, a Johns Hopkins University scientist behind a renewed effort to restore Pluto’s lost title.
Runyon and some leading planetary scientists have launched what might be the best shot in years at returning the icy rock now known as a “dwarf planet” to what they consider its rightful orbital place. And Pluto wouldn’t be the only one up for a promotion.
Its advocates’ generous definition of a planet would include Earth’s moon and crowd the cosmic neighborhood with 110 planets. The matter will be considered next week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas.
Runyon, 31, a doctoral candidate in planetary geology, recently waded into a long-simmering debate with the biggest names in astronomy.
“This is really just a Pluto-nostalgia thing dressed up like science,” said renowned planet hunter Mike Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, who literally wrote the book on Pluto’s ouster, called: “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.”
“The Pluto-huggers think this is their chance,” Brown said.
Pluto’s popularity surged after a NASA flyby in the summer of 2015 revealed ice mountains, hazy clouds, canyons and cliffs, capturing imaginations everywhere. Images even revealed evidence of volcanoes. Admirers among the public were invited to suggest mythology-themed names for these Earth-like features.
“Dear Pluto, lookin’ good. But you’re still a dwarf planet – get over it. Love, Neil deGrasse Tyson,” the celebrity astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, wrote on Twitter at the time.