Xena trounced by Eris

September 18, 2006

Brussels, 15 Sep 2006

The chaos surrounding the classification of the planets has had an unforeseen consequence on the naming of the dwarf planet-formerly-known-as-Xena. It will now be known as 'Eris', meaning discord, chaos or strife.

The dwarf planet was discovered on 8 January 2005 by astronomer Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology. The discovery set hands scratching heads, as it was found to be almost twice the size of what was then our smallest planet - Pluto.

So, if Pluto is a planet, then why not this lump of rock unofficially christened Xena, after a popular TV warrior, by its discoverer?

The answer to this question the Astronomical world turned from a respectable panel of prominent scientists into a shouting match. What should be done? Many felt that Pluto should never have been named a planet in the first place. Others felt a warm affection for Pluto, and that it should stay for posterity. Most agreed that the definition of 'planet' needed to be changed to make things clear.

So, in mid-August, a proposal was tabled to include not only 'Xena', but also the asteroid Ceres and Pluto's moon Charon in the club of planets.

However, the vote at the International Astronomical Union's general assembly in Prague, The Czech Republic took a different direction, leaving us with eight planets - Pluto and the rest demoted to 'dwarf planets', leaving many astronomers accusing certain delegates of 'hijacking' the vote.

Now, the faraway celestial body has a proper name - Eris, which many believe is entirely justified considering the problems the rock, until then officially known as 2003 UB313, had been causing. Its discoverer, Michael Brown, told the Associated Press that the name was, 'too perfect to resist.'

In Greek mythology, Eris was responsible for the start of the Trojan War. Eris was not invited to the enforced wedding between Peleus and Thetis. By way of revenge, she tossed the 'golden apple of discord' into the party. Paris was given the task of presenting the apple to the most beautiful goddess - either Aphrodite, Athena or Hera. Aphrodite's bribe was the best - to give Paris the most beautiful woman in the world - Helen. And so began the war.

Eris' size makes the debate somewhat surreal. At 2,400 km across, this is the distance that riders in the tour de France cover in two weeks. At twice the distance from the Sun as Pluto - some 14.5 billion km, there seems little scope of visiting this faraway world any time soon.

Eris' small moon has also been christened - 'Dysnomia', the Greek spirit of lawlessness.

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