The idea that our nine-planet solar system may soon join the obsolete world of eight-track tapes and slide rules should send science teachers, textbook writers and toymakers back to the cosmic drawing board.
"Does it make our products obsolete?" asked Kim McLynn, spokeswoman for Illinois-based Learning Resources, which makes an inflatable solar system and a Planet Quest game. "Wow, a whole new universe."
Though not approved yet, the 76-year-old lineup of the solar system's planets would grow to 12 under a proposal by leading astronomers. Their recommendation will be decided by a vote of the International Astronomical Union on Aug. 24.
For people who make their living on the old Mercury-through-Pluto system, a change in the planets means quick but welcome revisions, no matter how costly.
"This is, of course, a huge headache for publishers," said Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, a New York-based research institute that follows educational textbooks. Last-minute changes are expensive, but won't break any publisher, he said.
For example, Pearson Prentice Hall has science texts for next year going before California's textbook approval board and will try to get the 12-planet revision in for the state officials to review, said Julia Osborne, the publisher's science editorial director.
"It's worth it because this is such an exciting thing," Osborne said. But 2006 textbooks are already at schools, she said, so for "most students this fall it will be out of date."
Because schools keep textbooks for five to 10 years, it will be about seven years before most school books have 12 planets in them, said Osborne and Sewall.
Pity Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium and host of PBS' "Star Gazer" show. His very first book, a full-length cartoon guide to naked-eye astronomy, features an entire chapter on the solar system — the nine-planet version.
It won't be out for four more weeks — after the world's astronomers are likely to open the solar system doors to three new planets: Ceres, Charon, and one nicknamed Xena to be renamed later.
"My book is out-of-date before it even hits the bookstands," Horkheimer said. "It's kind of like buying a computer. By the time you get it out of the box and get it hooked up, it's already obsolete."
Problems for planetariums?
At the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, the main pavilion has a model of the solar system — the sun and nine planets (Earth is the size of a softball). The planetarium will likely have to add three new planets.
"They're pretty small," said astronomy director Geza Gyuk of the proposed new planets. "Maybe we can bring in a pingpong ball and that'll do the trick."
The Adler already has a planetary anachronism. When it opened 76 years ago, plaques had already been commissioned for just eight planets. Pluto was discovered a few months later. Gyuk doesn't see the Adler adding plaques for Pluto or the three proposed planets because "we just don't have space."
For the several thousand planetariums around the world, this is more exciting than difficult, said Susan Reynolds Button, president-elect of the International Planetarium Society.
"It's not a problem," Reynolds Button said. "We already have the visuals. We already have the equipment to do it. It's just a matter of presenting new data."
Reynolds Button, who used to take planetarium shows to schools, said the addition of three new planets "is a real nice juicy topic to get kids excited about."
Revising classroom models
Dan Reidy, a sixth-grade science teacher in Moultonborough, N.H., was sitting in his classroom preparing for the new school year and gazing at his model of the solar system. He usually asks his students, "What's wrong with this picture?" The correct answer is that the planet sizes and their distances from the sun are all out of proportion.
If the planet lineup changes, there will be something else wrong with his model.
Reidy will also have to figure out where to place the new planets on a large parachute-cloth solar system map that demonstrates proper size and scale, but he said it was exciting.
The race to change solar system toys more permanently is already on.
Discovery Channel Store spokeswoman Pamela Rucker predicted new 12-planet toys could be in stores in time for the Christmas season.
"We're already starting to work on 12 planets," said McLynn of Learning Resources.