Vol. 3, Issue 19, August 2, 2005
Illinois Man Applies for Planetary Status
An Illinois man has added fuel to a furious astronomical debate by officially applying to the International Astronomical Union for status as a planet.
"I've been sort of between jobs for a few years, so I really don't have a lot to do other than surf the internet at my brother's house," said Gerald Finkelschmidt, 34. "When I saw the announcement last week about the tenth planet, it inspired me to do a little research, and I realized that there was an opportunity here which might change my life for the better."
Last week astronomers announced the discovery of a new planet larger than Pluto in orbit around the sun. At 97 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth, the new object, informally designated "Xena," is the farthest object in the solar system. However, the discovery has raised the question of whether or not Pluto itself should be classified as a planet, or whether it is really just the nearest of potentially hundreds of similar bodies in the Kuiper belt, circling the solar system.
"The problem with Xena is that there isn't a good definition of what constitutes a planet," said Finkelschmidt. "And then I realized that the working definition for planets could actually apply to me. So I sent in an application."
The IAU definition states in part that planets are "objects with true masses below the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium (currently calculated to be 13 Jupiter masses for objects of solar metallicity) that orbit stars or stellar remnants are "planets" (no matter how they formed)".
"I've put on a few pounds these past couple of years, but I'm clearly below the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion," said Finkelschmidt, while patting his belly. "And I orbit the Sun, obviously. So technically, I qualify."
It is unclear what, if any, benefits Finkelschmidt might obtain by garnering planetary status.
"If the IAU decides to designate this guy a planet, I think there could be some serious consequences for astronomy as we know it," grimaced Horace Feldman, a senior astronomer-in-residence at the Palomar telescope. "On the other hand, clarifying the standards to exclude him could very well eliminate Pluto from our official list of planets. That could be culturally unacceptable; we're already getting angry letters from schoolkids who've heard we might "demote" it. Gentlemen, we're between a rock and a hard place."
Finkelschmidt has noted a variety of planetary features in his application, including a mysterious "great red spot" in his nether regions and an atmosphere high in methane, "especially after I make a Taco Bell run." His two cats, Artemis and Vampira, are listed on the application as "moons."
"You know, if this works out, I hope NASA sends a $500 million mission to learn more about me," he said. "And I hope they bring beer when they do."