|New Horizons at a Pluto that never was. Image credit: NASA|
I will defend this bold assertion shortly; before that, however, an overview of planet-hunting history since the 18th century is in order. This will provide the context we need to understand why Pluto was found so soon and why it became included in the Sun's family of planets.
The Solar System known to humans ended at Saturn until 1781, the year comet-hunter William Herschel stumbled upon Uranus. After a time, astronomers noted that the seventh planet did not move quite as expected. They speculated about the existence of an eighth planet massive enough to tug on Uranus with its gravity.
Twenty years after Herschel found Uranus, Giuseppe Piazzi found Ceres in the space between Mars and Jupiter. In short order, other astronomers found Pallas, Juno, and Vesta. Until the early 1850s, these worlds were considered to be planets, bringing the total known to 11.
There the planet population stood until 1845, when K. L. Hencke stumbled on Astraea and then, in 1847, Hebe. Astraea was the 12th planet discovered, but Hebe was the 14th, for the search for a planet beyond Uranus had paid off in 1846 with the discovery of Neptune.
Neptune's gravity accounted for the irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. However, it soon became clear that Neptune did not move exactly as expected. This led some to propose the existence of yet another large planet in the outermost reaches of the Solar System.
Meanwhile, the number of worlds known between Mars and Jupiter took off like a rocket. In addition to Hebe, 1847 saw the discovery of Iris and Flora. In 1848, Metis joined the list of planets. Hygeia was found in 1849, and Parthenope, Victoria, and Egeria in 1850. Irene and Eunomia joined the list in 1851, bringing the total number of planets orbiting the Sun to 23.
By then, most astronomers had decided that enough was enough. Clearly, Ceres and her sisters had much in common. It seemed that they were representatives of a new class of small Solar System bodies. By 1854, a term that Herschel had coined after the discovery of Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta had gained widespread acceptance. The worlds between Jupiter and Mars became known as "asteroids" and the Solar System planet count shrank to eight: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. (The terms asteroid, minor planet, and planetoid have, historically, been used interchangeably.)
There things stood until the early years of the 20th century, when wealthy and eccentric American amateur astronomer Percival Lowell got into the act. Lowell had founded an observatory in 1894 in Flagstaff, Arizona, to seek evidence of intelligent life on Mars. He wrote a series of books in which he argued that fine lines some astronomers glimpsed on the disk of Mars were strips of vegetation growing beside canals dug by an ancient, dying martian civilization.
Though a hit with the public, Lowell's vision was greeted with derision by professional astronomers. By 1906, even he had begun to lose faith, so he gave his observatory a new mission: Lowell Observatory would search for the undiscovered planet beyond Neptune. Lowell called it Planet X. His calculations gave it six times the mass of Earth. Other astronomers, such as William Pickering, sought a trans-Neptunian planet, so the search became a race.
Clyde Tombaugh found Planet X at Lowell Observatory in 1930, 14 years after Percival Lowell's death. It was soon named Pluto for the Roman god of the cold, dark underworld. There was much rejoicing — at first.
Pluto was an odd customer from the get-go. Its orbit crosses Neptune's and is tilted 17° relative to the plane of the Solar System. It was also mysteriously faint. A world large enough to tug on Neptune should have been relatively big, hence relatively bright. Weird Pluto didn't even show a planet-like disk. This led to much puzzlement and at least one imaginative theory (see "Pluto, Doorway to the Stars" in the More Information section below).
Pluto's peculiarities also fueled detractors who believed that it did not qualify to be grouped with Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. I conducted a very cursory search — paging through a science textbook from 1933, just three years after Pluto was discovered — and found that Pluto's peculiar orbit had already led at least two geologists to call it a planetoid, not a planet.
We know now that the calculations that pointed to a big planet beyond Neptune — a planet with enough gravity to account for the discrepancies in Neptune's orbit — were flawed. The astronomers had got Neptune's mass wrong. Put the correct mass into the equations and the Neptune discrepancies vanish.
By the time we worked out that we had no need of a planet beyond Neptune, we knew that Pluto was too small to be that planet anyway. After we found its moon Charon in 1978 we could accurately calculate Pluto's mass. Its mass is about 0.0022 that of Earth (Earth = 1). Put another way, Pluto is about one-fifth of 1% as massive as Earth.
What if somehow we'd computed Neptune's orbital motion properly and never set out to find Planet X? If Lowell and others hadn't raced to find a trans-Neptunian planet in the 1906-1930 period, then it's quite possible — even likely — that we would not have stumbled upon Pluto until the 1970s or 1980s.
Let's say arbitrarily that we discovered Pluto and Charon together in 1978. Just as in our timeline, we would have used Charon's orbital motion to compute Pluto's tiny mass. Small mass combined with Pluto's weird orbit around the Sun would have meant that we would not have rushed to call Pluto a planet.
We probably would instead have rushed to seek other bodies like Pluto, and it is likely that with 1980s and 1990s technology we would have found several. That would have been the clincher. Pluto, we would have decided, was the first body to be found in a new population of bodies. We would have cited Ceres and the Main Belt asteroids as a precedent.
Would we then have called Pluto an asteroid? I suspect so. We might have called the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter the Inner Asteroid Belt and the one containing Pluto the Outer Asteroid Belt. No doubt some would have dubbed Pluto "the Ceres of trans-Neptunian space."
Perhaps we would have adopted a different name for the Outer Asteroid Belt: the name most astronomers have in fact adopted. In our timeline, David Jewitt and Jane Luu discovered the first trans-Neptunian body (other than Pluto) in 1992. Called 1992 QB1, it was the first recognized member of the long-hypothesized Kuiper Belt.
In our 2015, we know of more than a thousand Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) out of a population that might number in the billions. Most, like 1992 QB1, are quite small; perhaps a couple of dozen are similar to Pluto and Charon in terms of size and mass (Pluto is about 2370 kilometers wide, or about two-thirds the diameter of Earth's moon; Charon, 1200 kilometers across).
Had we found Pluto in 1978, we would still have sought to explore it, for it remains the nearest large trans-Neptunian body. Quite probably a space mission much like New Horizons would have been launched to asteroid Pluto, just as Dawn was launched to asteroids Ceres and Vesta. (Dawn, however, was able to orbit both bodies; New Horizons was a fast flyby.)
How might the world have changed if Pluto had not been found until 1978?
The discovery of Pluto in 1930 helped to repair Lowell Observatory's battered reputation, permitting it to grow into the respected institution it is today. Had it not found Pluto, its greatest claim to fame, it might not have survived. Perhaps it would have closed its doors in the 1930s.
Without Lowell Observatory, its home city, Flagstaff, Arizona, would have developed a different character. It would not have passed the world's first dark-skies ordinance in 1958 nor become world's first International Dark-Sky City in 2001.
My late wife and I would have had to find a different place to get married. We were wed in 1998 on the Lowell Observatory grounds, near the bucket-shaped dome housing the 24-inch Clark refractor Percival Lowell used to map canals on Mars (a telescope I learned to operate in 2001 and used to observe Mars in 2003).
Without Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff would probably not have become home to an unusually large number of scientific institutions for its size. For example, the U.S. Naval Observatory, where Charon was discovered, probably would not have set up shop west of town in the 1950s.
The Astrogeology Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey used Lowell Observatory telescopes for Moon mapping starting in about 1960, then moved to Flagstaff in 1963. Had it not become based in Flagstaff, it would likely have been split between rival lunar geology groups in Menlo Park, California, and Washington, DC.
The Astrogeology Branch was largely responsible for astronaut geology training during Apollo. Much training took place near Flagstaff — at the Grand Canyon, on the Bonito Lava Flow and Cinder Lakes, in and around Meteor Crater. With no Astrogeology in Flagstaff, Apollo geology training would have followed a different course.
Those are mostly negative or neutral changes in the timeline. Would there have been any positive ones?
I suspect that, had we found Pluto in 1978, not 1930, we would have been spared the ego clashes and animosity generated when Pluto was "demoted" in 2006. No one could have exploited the hyped-up controversy over whether Pluto was a planet to gain fame and sell books and Internet content because there wouldn't have been any hyped-up controversy.
We also would have been spared the odd, unsatisfactory term "dwarf planet." A dwarf planet fails to "clear" its orbit but orbits the Sun and is round like a planet (or, to put it another way, it is in hydrostatic equilibrium — during formation its gravity was sufficient to pull the stuff it is made of into a spherical shape). Pluto orbits the Sun and is round, but has a resonating relationship with Neptune and has neighbors in similar orbits, so it has not cleared its orbit. Hence, Pluto is a dwarf planet. Ceres has earned the dwarf planet classification, too, as have three other bodies out past Pluto — including, oddly enough, Haumea, which is apparently oblong.
I should note here that asteroid Vesta would probably have been called a dwarf planet under the current definition if it hadn't had its south pole blown off by a collision with another, smaller asteroid after its gravity had finished pulling it into a spherical shape. If Haumea can be a dwarf planet, then why can't more nearly spherical Vesta?
The most embarrassing thing about the dwarf planet label is that bodies we call planets do not clear their orbits. Jupiter's Trojan asteroid swarms and Earth's Near-Earth Asteroid population attest to this. Even more bizarre, Neptune remains a planet even though the presence of Pluto means that it has not cleared its orbit. Its gravity has "managed" Pluto's orbit, but Pluto is still there. So, strictly speaking, most or all of the Solar System's planets are dwarf planets.
Note that the definitions say that planets and dwarf planets orbit the Sun. They thus manage to exclude the thousands of planets we have found orbiting other stars. Basically, they assume a Sun-centered universe. Those who proposed and supported the current definitions of planet and dwarf planet didn't have that in mind — in fact, according to at least one source, extrasolar planets were excluded because of concerns about accurately labeling planets and brown dwarfs. It's worth noting this peculiarity, however, because it points up the fact that the definitions need work.
It is possible that the non-discovery of Pluto in 1930 would have had other, unforeseeable effects outside the world of astronomy. In a world where a butterfly's flapping wings in New York City might produce a typhoon in Taiwan, anything seems possible. Perhaps the Cuban Missile Crisis would have gone hot — or not happened at all. Perhaps Steven Spielberg would have directed Star Wars. Perhaps Apple would have been named Radish. Who can say?
Historical Geology, R. Moore, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1933, pp. 5-6, 651.
"The Asteroids: History, Surveys, Techniques, and Future Work," T. Gehrels; in Asteroids, T. Gehrels, editor, The University of Arizona Press, 1979, pp. 3-24.
Twitter correspondence with C. Lintott (https://www.zooniverse.org/), 16 May 2018.
Clyde Tombaugh's Vision of Mars (1959)
Pluto, Doorway to the Stars (1962)
New Horizons II (2004-2005)