'Life' on Other 'Planets'


By the way, we still don't know what a planet is. Why? Do you?

Remember back in August of last year, when I wrote about the discovery of a new 'planet' (or so we've agreed to refer to it as such, for now) in the outer reaches of our solar system, even larger than Pluto? (I remember it well, since that article was the impetus for my appearances in the New York Times and on the CBS Evening News.)

There's been nary a big-media peep about it since, and astronomers remain in a quandary about how exactly to proceed. After all, the ramifications for our popular astronomical understanding is enormous—either Pluto never should've been called a 'planet' for starters, or else we're realizing there are a lot more planets out there than we've thought.

And this bigger-than-Pluto body remains without an official name, several months after it entered our mass consciousness. (I don't think '2003 UB313' is catchy enough to stick.) Surely, the loudest rumors—that this '10th planet' will be named Xena, after the TV warrior-woman—will prove false. There are rules, people. All planets found in that far-reaching solar-system zone must take on the names of creator deities, per the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

But what if it's not officially a planet…?

According to its website, the IAU intends to publicly release its final authoritative decision on what defines a planet sometime in Sep 06, following its General Assembly meeting this month in Prague. At stake is a very precarious question. Previously, we were rather confident in our ability to identify a planet—but based more on cultural tradition than anything. After all, it was only relatively recently, in the grand scheme of our skywatching history that our technology even allowed us conscious access to other bodies orbiting beyond the scope of our naked eye. With more variables at play, we face the intellectual pressure to tighten the category of 'planet' with more specific criteria.

The problem, alas, lies in the limitations inherent to the IAU's top currently-in-debate 'choices' of planet-defining traits. For every general rule that used to apply to planets—they must (1) orbit around a star and (2) be above a certain size, but (3) not so large as to commence nuclear fusion—there's a recent discovery to come along and present exceptions.

In other words, we didn't know what we didn't know until new information became available. We have to revise our scientific thinking, in order to make room for these latest expansions in consciousness… and trust me, there will be more all the time.

As we can see, the discovery of 2003 UB313 (almost undeniably a planet) forced the issue of our incomplete intellectual framework into the forefront of our awareness—and now, there's no going back. Consequently, 2003 UB313's discovery and its role as the 'final straw' compelling us to address the 'what is a planet?' dilemma are synchronistically linked in a way that, in my opinion, points to possible clues about the planet's eventual astrological symbolism.

At each modern planetary discovery, beginning with Uranus in 1781, the entry of the new body into our consciousness has coincided with a quantum leap in our cultural thinking, connected archetypally to the very qualities that planet proved to signify. With the more recent barrage of astronomical findings, though, the playing field has suddenly broadened dramatically. As astrologers, most of us have had a hard time keeping up—and haven't necessarily tried, overloaded perhaps by too many cosmic bodies to master.

The main astrological significance I've personally drawn from this profusion is: There's so much more out there than we can currently know or understand. And that generality, general as it is, has served the philosopher in me quite well.

With 2003 UB313 emerging from the crowd, arguably, as the most notable of recent discoveries, I cannot help but associate its still-being-determined astrological meanings with these thoughts of 'so much more out there'. To get our geographic bearings, let's not forget how far out in our solar system we're looking, when we talk about these new planets. Sedna, another of these maybe-planets, is situated so distant as to be on the very periphery of our Sun's gravitational influence. And synchronistically, the two Voyager spacecrafts, launched on their interstellar mission in 1977 (the year Chiron, the 'new' body most commonly used by astrologers), are also nearing the far-off point where termination shock—according to Space.com, 'where the solar wind first starts to slow down and reverse due to its first encounters with pressure from interstellar space'—will occur.

No doubt about it: We are on the edge. And when we get there: Then what?

We don't know what's out there, anymore than we know what a 'planet' is. It's just a word, anyway… a word like 'life', that biochemical category (or is it metaphysical?) in which we include ourselves. Should we stumble upon alternative forms of, um, life or something like it, though, we'd undoubtedly have to reshape our meaning of the word. Maybe it's not unilaterally carbon-based, after all. And if it weren't, would we recognize it when we saw it… or smelled it… or communicated with it through our outer-aura psychic sensors?

In reconsidering what constitutes a planet, we are faced with reconceptualizing our place in the cosmos. The jump to considerations of extraterrestrial life, in relation to our continued exploration of deeper space, isn't a huge one to take from there. And with the trouble we Earth-dwellers have created for ourselves on this very hunk o' rock, we may need all the help—and the absolute widest vision—we can get.

Something (or someone?) tells me the astrology of 2003 UB313 is somehow involved. That's all I've got for now, though.

The Discovery of 2003 UB313, the 10th Planet (Michael Brown, Cal Tech)
Is Pluto a Giant Comet? (Dan Green, Harvard U.)
Life (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Alternative Biochemistry (Wikipedia)
SETI (Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence) Institute Homepage