NASA Boss Jokingly Declares Pluto a Planet, Gets Everyone's Hopes Up

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

It's been 13 years since Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet—and fans of the celestial body are still not over it. Everyone from kids to respected astronomers have argued that Pluto deserves the title of the ninth planet in our solar system. As IFL Science reports, even the head of NASA has come out as Team Planet Pluto.

At a FIRST Robotics event on August 23, 2019, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine jokingly declared Pluto to be a planet again. “Just so you know, in my view, Pluto is a planet,” he said in a clip broadcast by NASA TV. “I’m sticking by that, it’s the way I learned it and I’m committed to it.”

Based on that soundbite, it's easy feel hopeful about Pluto's planetary status. But NASA doesn't set the standards for planets in our solar system: the International Astronomical Union (IAU) does. On August 24, 2006, the organization announced that Pluto didn't meet the new criteria used to define true planets. According to the IAU, a planet should orbit the sun, be spherical due to gravity, and be the dominant body in its orbit. Even though Pluto meets these first two requirements, its orbit overlaps with that of Neptune, which means it's not technically a planet in the IAU's view.

The ruling was hugely controversial, and not just because it contradicted what millions of people were taught in grade school. The amount of "cleared space" in its orbit, an indicator that differentiates planets from asteroids, is not easy to measure, and it was rarely used to define planets prior to 2006.

Even if it's not official, Bridenstine's declaration should at least validate the many Pluto supporters still fighting for the former planet's dignity.

[h/t IFL Science]

A Rare Unicorn Meteor Outburst Could Be Visible for Less Than an Hour on Thursday

joegolby/iStock via Getty Images
joegolby/iStock via Getty Images

Your chances of seeing a unicorn this week are slim, but if you look up on Thursday night, you may see something that's almost as extraordinary. As Sky & Telescope reports, the upcoming Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower could produce a meteor outburst, which means there could be multiple shooting stars per second streaming from the unicorn constellation.

What is a unicorn meteor shower?

There's nothing particularly magical about the Alpha Monocerotids. They appear to originate near the star Procyon, which is next to the constellation Monoceros, the Greek name for unicorn.

The shower is known for occasionally packing a dense flurry of activity into a brief viewing window. The meteors appear between November 15 through the 25th of each year, and peak around the 22nd. Several times a century, the shower treats sky gazers to an "outburst" of shooting stars that lasts less than an hour.

Such an outburst is predicted for 2019. According to astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, the Earth is on track to pass through a thick portion of the tail of the unknown comet that provides debris for the shower. The conditions are almost the same as they were in 1995, when the Alpha Monocerotids lit up the sky at a rate of 400 meteors per hour, which is approaching meteor storm levels. For that reason, the scientists are expecting shooting stars to appear in the same numbers this time around.

How to see the meteor outburst

Timing is crucial if you want to catch the Alpha Monocerotids, even more than with regular meteor showers. The outburst is expected to start at 11:15 p.m. EST and last just 15 to 40 minutes. Luckily, the sun will be fully set by then and the crescent moon won't rise until after 2 a.m, creating optimal viewing conditions for the eastern half of the country. The shooting stars are fast—traveling at 40 miles per second—and they come at random. Don't be surprised to wait a minute between meteors during some parts of the outburst and less than a second at others.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend—Here's the Best Way to Watch It

mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images
mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images

We're nearing the end of 2019, but there are still a few astronomical events to catch before the year is s out. This Sunday—November 17—the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak. Here's everything you need to know before viewing the spectacle.

What is the Leonid meteor shower?

Like all meteor showers, the Leonids are caused by meteoroids from outer space burning up on their descent toward Earth. These particular shooting stars come from the rocky tail of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Each November, debris from the comet pummels the Earth's atmosphere, causing meteors to light up the sky at rates that can exceed 1000 per hour.

The Leonids won't reach that frequency this year. According to EarthSky, the meteors would peak at a rate of around 10 to 15 per hour in a dark, moonless sky. But because the moon will be bright this weekend, sky-gazers will likely see less of them, with only the brightest shooting stars shining through.

How to See the Leonids

For your best chance of spotting the Leonids, look up the night of Sunday, November 17 and early in the morning of Monday, November 18. The shower reaches its peak after midnight. The moon will be in its waning gibbous phase at that time, so even with clear skies, viewing conditions won't be ideal. But there are ways to increase your chances of seeing as many meteors as possible. Try finding a large object to stand under—such as a tree or building—that will block your view of the moon. If you don't see anything right away, be patient: The more time you give your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the more likely you are to spot a shooting star.

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