then there were eight
When I last wrote this column, it was a sure bet that we
were going to expand our solar system to twelve members, with the
possibility of several more to be added in the near future. It was
an exciting time for everyone interested in planetary science. Alas,
the jubilation came to an abrupt end. Now, according to the 428
members of the International Astronomical Union who voted, out of
a membership of 8,858, Pluto is no longer a planet. Then, again,
neither is Xena, Gabriel, or Ceres. The final definition of “planet”
(and its approval) was a bit of a surprise to everyone.
Many astronomers are objecting to the new definition of a planet.
Some are not taking Pluto’s demotion lying down. Almost immediately,
Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson,
Arizona, and Alan Stern, of the Space Science and Engineering Division
of the Southwest Research Institute, posted a petition on-line stating,
“We, as planetary scientists and astronomers, do not agree
with the IAU's definition of a planet, nor will we use it. A better
definition is needed." By early September, more than three
hundred astronomers had signed the petition. But the IAU General
Assembly, which sets policy, only meets every three years, so there
is plenty of time to mount a protest and sign petitions.
Until then, you can call the former planet named Pluto by its new
asteroid name—134340. Pluto's companion satellites, Charon,
Nix, and Hydra, now have the designations 134340 I, 134340 II, and
134340 III. 2003 UB313, temporarily named Xena by its discoverers,
is now number 136199, officially named Eris, and joins Ceres and
Pluto as a “dwarf planet.”
The Loss of Our Night Sky
As more and more people move into the rural areas of our state,
they bring with them their city ways, the worst of which is their
need to light up the night. I have seen it too many times. New neighbors
come to Placitas, where I live, and immediately turn on every outdoor
light they have available. Some leave these lights on all night.
Most finally see that their neighbors do not have exterior lights
on and finally turn off most of them.
The New Mexico Night Sky Protection Act (74-12-1 to 74-12-10 NMSA
1978) helps some, but often people ignore it when installing lighting.
Here are the highlights of the act:
• Section 4. All outdoor lighting fixtures installed after
January 1, 2000 shall be shielded, except incandescent fixtures
of one hundred fifty watts or less and other sources of seventy
watts or less.
• Section 5a. In addition to other exemptions provided in
the Night Sky Protection Act, an outdoor lighting fixture not meeting
these provisions shall be allowed, if the fixture is extinguished
by an automatic shutoff device between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and
• Section 6. No new mercury vapor outdoor lighting fixtures
shall be sold or installed after January 1, 2000.
Unfortunately, the act does little to actually preserve the view
of the night sky for most observers. Incandescent spot lights are
often 150 watts or less and can be a terrible annoyance when they
shine into windows of neighbors or up into the sky, obscuring the
stars. And there is no restriction on the number of these lights
in a given area. Then, almost anything goes as long as the light
automatically turns off at 11 p.m. Most normal non-astronomers who
just enjoy looking at the night sky will not be up stargazing much
past 11 p.m. anyway.
The one good section in this otherwise useless act is the ban on
mercury vapor lights. Too bad those already installed are grandfathered.
This law needs to be updated and changed to actually protect the
night sky and neighbors from the glare of lights in what should
be very dark rural New Mexico. If you are not happy with the current
law, you can help change it. Contact your state representatives
and county commissioners. Tell them you want your dark sky back.
Get involved now, before all of the sky is lost, please. Bright
spotlights, unshielded floodlights, and vapor lights do not belong
You can read the entire act at www.delapp.com/codes/nm_night_sky_protection_act_nmsa74-12-1.php.
For more information on protecting the night sky, see www.nmheritage.org,
The Planets and Moon
This month will be very bleak for planet watchers.
Mercury will be hiding near the Sun this month; however, you may
catch a glimpse of this elusive planet low in the western sky about
7:00 p.m. if you are lucky. The easiest way to find Mercury will
be to locate Jupiter from the 13th to the 20th. Mercury will be
below it near the horizon. After that, Jupiter will be closer to
the horizon. The crescent Moon joins the group on the 23rd.
Venus, too, is very close to the Sun and will be absent from view.
Mars is also in the Sun’s glare. Forget finding it this month.
Jupiter will be setting after the Sun in the evening sky. Enjoy
it while you can. It is heading for a rendezvous with the Sun at
the end of the month.
Saturn is for those with insomnia. It will rise in the east about
3:00 a.m. early in the month and about 1:30 a.m. late in the month.
The Moon joins Saturn on the morning of the 16th.
The Moon is full on October 6th and new on the 22nd.
If you have a question, comment, or suggestion
for Charlie, e-mail him at: email@example.com.