Video: Scary Space

The recent space shuttle mission is not the only reason to cast an eye toward the skies.  News has been circulating around the astronomical world, ranging from the possible discovery of a new planet and a meteor hurdling towards earth to sounds emanating from Saturn.

What makes a planet any way?
The current solar system model, as defined by the International Astronomical Union, includes the same nine planets we all learned about in elementary school. 

However, a joint discovery by independent scientists in Spain and Caltech may prove to rewrite our definition of a planet.  Currently called “2003-EL-61,” a large object lies beyond Neptune and has its own moon.

“If we were discovering this 150 years ago, we would have considered this a planet,” according to Derrick Pitts, the Chief Astronomer at the Franklin Institute Space Museum.  "I‘m thinking this discovery will spur the International Astronomical Union to reconsider our definition of the word planet and maybe include it."

Too close for comfort
Though, “2003-EL-61” seems very far away compared to a possible asteroid that many scientists have predicted to hit the earth’s gravitational pull by 2039.

Mark your calendars for April 13, 2039.  The asteroid known as “99942-Apophis" will only be 22,000 miles away — closer than a cell phone satellite.

In order to reach the earth, the asteroid must pass through three gravitational keyholes. These keyholes keep satellites in orbit.  But, the pull may also draw an asteroid towards our atmosphere.

“The possibility is kind of on the slim side, say 1 in 15,000.  But it has to hit those gravitational keyholes, so that's really spreading it out even bigger,” says Pitts.  “We have to look at the orbit very carefully and determine if the numbers that we have so far actually are correct, because what could happen is, with further examination of the orbital path, we could find out that it's not going to come close to Earth at all."

According to Pitts, this isn’t the first time this has become a concern. “It‘s happened probably three times in recent history.  So we still need to do a little bit more research work with it.”

Saturn sings
Saturn has also been raising interests in the astronomical world recently. The Cassini spacecraft, launched eight years ago to analyze Saturn, began detecting strange sound emissions from the planet as early as three years ago.

“It's making noise because electromagnetic particles from the sun interact with Saturn's atmosphere and the magnetosphere particularly,” Pitts explains. “Scientists have taken their graphic description of this and changed the frequency so that they can turn it into an audio file and hear what it sounds like, rather than just looking at the curve on a sheet of paper.”

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