On July 29 the boundaries of our solar system expanded by seven billion miles, as astronomers announced the discovery of a new planet in orbit around our Sun. The latest in a series of planet-like objects found by astronomers Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz, object 2003 UB313 is unique in that it is the first outer solar system object discovered that is bigger than Pluto.(1)
Working from photographs taken with the 48-inch Samuel Oschin telescope at Caltech's Palomar Observatory outside San Diego, the team has discovered several new planetoids. But not since the discovery of Neptune in 1846 has an object this large been found to orbit our Sun.
What Makes a Planet a Planet?
Considering astronomers' hesitance to grant planet status, the enthusiasm attending the announcement of 2003 UB 313 as our solar system's tenth planet comes as something of a surprise. For years astronomers, including Mike Brown, have argued that Pluto itself should not be classified as a planet. While there is no universally accepted definition of planethood, the historical planets—all except for Pluto—share some common distinctions. They are round, they orbit the Sun, and they can be classified as solitary individuals as opposed to members of large populations.
A solitary individual is a planet that exists in a region of space where it is the only one of its kind. Our own planet is a perfect illustration of the solitary individual, says Brown: "The Earth has a diameter of about 12,000 km, while the largest other object in the Earth's vicinity, the asteroid Ganymed, has a diameter of about 41 km."(2)
Members of large populations, by contrast, share their orbital space with other objects like them in size and composition. The asteroid Ceres (900km) is nearly as large as Pluto (932km) and was considered to be the missing fifth planet upon its discovery in 1801. As it turned out, Ceres, though the largest asteroid, is hardly alone in space. She shares the asteroid belt—between Mars and Jupiter—with thousands of similar objects. The largest of these, Pallas and Vesta, are both about half Ceres' size, whereas the difference in size between Earth and Ganymed is a factor of 300.
In the eyes of many astronomers, Pluto's elevation to planet status is an accident of history. When it was found in 1930, Pluto was thought to be the only one of its kind. But astronomers now know it to be a member of a large population in the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy objects with orbits ranging from 30-50 astronomical units, or AU. (An AU is the mean distance between the Earth and Sun.) Some of the more well-known Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs, are Quaoar and Varuna, both of which are about half the size of Pluto.
The Consciousness Test
It is axiomatic in astrology that the discovery of a new planet coincides with a need for a new set of psychological/mythological symbols in the collective consciousness to help us explain our experience. As astrologer Jonathan Cainer writes about the discovery of Sedna, "If the earth is ultimately just one living entity, perhaps the entire solar system is also part of that same giant being? In which case, when we discover a new planet at the very edge of our world, it is as if we are discovering a new possibility at the very edge of our own personality!"(3)
By this standard, Pluto definitely passes the consciousness test. Coming just four months after the great stock market crash of October 1929, Pluto's discovery (it was the first planet discovered by an American) heralded the Great Depression and symbolized an age of unparalleled increases in technological power, specifically the power of humans to destroy. For astrologers, the "Lord of the Underworld" represents the cosmic force of regeneration, the divine Will that destroys the old in order to make way for a new, higher order of life. Pluto represents pure transpersonal power, and when its energies are applied unconsciously some very dark things can happen. With Pluto on board, Cainer notes, "From the Great Depression to the Holocaust, from the atomic bomb to the advent of global warming, humanity finally got to see just what a terrifying place it was capable of turning the world into." (Editor's note: see Jeff Jawer's The Discovery of the Outer Planets for more on the discovery of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.)
The Centaur Chiron, "the wounded healer," is another example of the consciousness test in action. At about 150km in diameter, Chiron is only as large as a medium-sized asteroid. But, with an eccentric orbit that takes it inside of Saturn and outside of Uranus, and with characteristics of an asteroid, a comet and a planet, Chiron was unlike anything the world had seen before. Unable to shoehorn this cosmic shape-shifter into one of the existing categories, scientists needed a whole new class of heavenly body. American Charles Kowal, the astronomer who discovered Chiron, chose to name it after the greatest of the Centaurs, a half-horse, half-human healer who also happened to be the son of Saturn and grandson of Uranus.
Chiron's discovery and associated mythology proved to be a striking bit of synchronicity. Kowal found Chiron in 1977, a time when the world was trying to come to grips with the mechanization, dehumanization and massive destruction of the half-century that followed the discovery of Pluto. We were a nation desperately in need of healing, and Chiron quickly came to symbolize the nascent holistic movement and its emphasis on healing our emotional wounds by expanding awareness to include the whole self. By connecting Saturn (our large social institutions or power structures) and Uranus (the revolutionary spark that leads us to seek freedom and autonomy), Chiron served as a connecting bridge between our animal nature and our spiritual nature and embodied the New Age imperative to re-spirit our social structures.
Will 2003 UB313 pass the consciousness test? Judging by the splash it made upon arrival, one would guess so. Mike Brown discusses his belief that the new object is indeed a planet, and how his evolving thinking has led him to not only change his mind about Pluto but also propose that new objects larger than Pluto be considered planets as well:
Culturally, however, the idea that Pluto is a planet is enshrined in a million different ways, from plastic place mats depicting the solar system that include the nine planets, to official NASA web sites, to mnemonics that all school children learn to keep the nine planets straight, to U.S. postage stamps.
Our culture has fully embraced the idea that Pluto is a planet and also fully embraced the idea that things like large asteroids and large Kuiper belt objects are not planets...Pluto is a planet because culture says it is.
Thus, we declare that the new object, with a size larger than Pluto, is indeed a planet...We scientists can continue our debates, but I hope we are generally ignored.(4)
What Does It Mean?
In the last week of July alone, three new Kuiper Belt Objects were discovered, each one brighter than all other known KBOs but Pluto. The discovery that one of these is larger than Pluto and therefore, de facto, a planet caps off a pretty significant week in the history of human consciousness. At 10 billion miles from the Sun, or about three times the distance of Pluto, the new planet represents a symbolic quantum leap in the size and scope of our solar system. Can we continue to doubt that our own consciousness is on the threshold of a similar expansion?
Of course, an identity like 2003 UB313 won't land the new planet on any place mats or postage stamps, nor in the working vocabulary of most astrologers. In 2004, Brown and his team created a small storm of controversy by leaking their proposed name of Sedna to the press before the International Astronomical Union could rule on it. (Sedna passed the culture test with flying colors.) In the wake of that controversy, Brown is keeping his proposed name for the new planet secret.
There is, however, ample reason to speculate that the proposed name is something along the lines of Layla. If this turns out to be the case, it would seem particularly apt. The embodiment of the feminine night of creation in Sufi mythology, Layla represents the void from which the masculine creative power springs forth and into which it must sink again.(5) This myth certainly resonates with the new planet's home in the deepest, darkest, most mysterious reaches of our solar system. In the current climate of fundamentalist holy wars between Christians and Muslims, and at a time when there is such a need for divine feminine energy on our planet, such a name would seem to carry a particularly healing touch.
Whatever the new planet's name, her discovery puts us in mind of the endless creative potential of space, within and without. As we adjust to her presence, she is certain to open up for us new ways of seeing, new doors of perception into our own limitless souls. For this promise, we can be truly grateful.
(1) Object Bigger Than Pluto Discovered, Called 10th Planet by Robert Roy Britt
(2) Cal Tech: Sedna (2003 VB12)
(3) Jonathan Cainer's Zodiac Forecasts - 2005 Year Ahead
(4) Cal Tech: New Planet
(5) The Return of Lilith: A Sufi Perspective