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Author Topic: Thoughts on Pluto's Planetary Plight
Tech Angel
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Icon 1 posted August 26, 2006 19:57      Profile for Tech Angel     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I was an avid amateur astronomer growing up (even built my own observatory in the back yard), so this whole discussion about Pluto's planetary status really fascinates me.

I've been reading various opinions on the IAU's decision, from erudite astronomers and lay people, science writers and school kids. What seems most disconcerting for those who don't approve of the decision is, How can you just take a planet and in essence "vote" it out of the club? Obviously nothing about Pluto itself has changed, so it feels as if people are trying to change a scientific fact by simply declaring it so. (All sorts of implications in terms of "rewriting history".) It's especially difficult to accept because Pluto has been a planet for the lifetime of virtually everyone alive today -- it's a "truth", and there is a certain security in anchoring one's self to immutable truths...even if sometimes those truths really aren't.

But there's the rub: Perhaps Pluto shouldn't have been called a planet in the first place. In essence, the IAU is attempting to correct an error in judgment that was made 76 years ago based on an incomplete set of data. And that's really what science is: investigating the natural universe and drawing conclusions based on what we find. Often when we see and understand more, we realize that our original conclusions were wrong, or our definitions less than useful. Science is not so much a static body of knowledge and facts, but a dynamic process of understanding the world around us and organizing that knowledge in ways to further our investigation.

This whole Pluto thing has precedent. After Ceres was discovered on Jan. 1, 1801 (first day of the 19th century), it was heralded as the long-sought-after planet that many theorized should lie between Mars and Jupiter (see Bode's Law). But as astronomers learned more about its size and the presence of other bodies in its orbit (Pallas, Vesta, Juno, etc.), they realized they had jumped to conclusions. By the 1860's, Ceres was reclassified as the largest of a ring of so-called "asteroids".

This is very similar to Pluto's plight. When first discovered in 1930, it was estimated to be about 3000-3500 miles in diameter -- probably bigger than Mercury. Then astronomers calculated Pluto's orbit was significantly more tilted and elliptical than those of the other planets. But the clincher was the 1978 discovery that what had been seen as "Pluto" was really two smaller bodies orbiting around each other (Pluto and Charon), and the largest of these was only 1400 miles in diameter -- 2/3 the size of our own moon! In addition, over the last 10 years astronomers have discovered more bodies of similar size with similar orbital characteristics, and at least one of these (nicknamed "Xena") is even larger than Pluto.

So the real question is: If astronomers had known these facts in 1930 when Pluto was discovered, would they have even called it a planet in the first place? With the discovery of all those other asteroids, we realized we had jumped to conclusions about Ceres. With the discovery of all these Kuiper Belt objects, we realize we may have been too hasty about Pluto. In essence, we learned additional important facts over the last 30 years, and it's taken until 2006 for scientists to reach any kind of consensus as a result.

(Another relevant example, of course, is the one that led to concluding that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. Greater understanding of the motions of the planets, and the discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter, forced astronomers and eventually the Church to rethink and revise their geocentric "truths" in the 16th and 17th centuries.)

It all reminds me of a favorite quote:
"The trouble with most folks isn't so much their ignorance; it's knowing so many things that ain't so."
- 19th century humorist Josh Billings

Anyway, that's my "science essay" for the day. I just felt like sharing these thoughts -- thanks for reading. [Smile]

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GrumpySteen

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Icon 1 posted August 27, 2006 06:24      Profile for GrumpySteen     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I agree with all of that from a scientific point of view. From a social view, however, it makes as much sense as demanding that grocery stores put canned tomatoes in with the other canned fruits because it's not a vegetable.

Planet is just a word we made up long ago to describe certain objects in the solar system. If we want a scientifically accurate term with a precise definition, we should create a new one, not try to change a definition that's had nearly 80 years to become embedded in our mindset. Nobody can argue with the definition of a new term and, unlike a redefined term, searching with the new term won't lead to out of date references that confuse people who are just beginning to learn this stuff.

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Ashitaka

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Icon 1 posted August 27, 2006 09:30      Profile for Ashitaka     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I don't think this change will be that hard to accept. I remember in my astronomy classes, Plutos position as a planet was discussed. It was always referred to as the plant that wans't really a planet. I think this just came as a shock to people who have never taken astronomy classes and didn't know anything about this agrument until it popped into the news a few days back that all of a sudden there is one less planet.

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The Famous Druid

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Icon 1 posted August 27, 2006 14:40      Profile for The Famous Druid     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Why all the fuss about "having to re-write the school Science books" ?

This is Science guys, it's continually updated to include new discoveries.

Personally, I think the new definition is a bit sloppily-worded, and I'd have been happier with the expanded definition of planet that included Ceres, Charon, and Xena, but when you get right down to it, it doesn't really matter.

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If you watch 'The History Of NASA' backwards, it's about a space agency that has no manned spaceflight capability, then does low-orbit flights, then lands on the Moon.

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Icon 1 posted August 27, 2006 15:51      Profile for Thorned0Fortress   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I think that Pluto should stay a planet.
Man, I am such a DORK.
My friends will want to hang out and I'll say, "GREAT! There will three planets visible tonight and such-and-such time."
The other night I actually had a dream about star gazing.

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Aditu
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Icon 1 posted August 27, 2006 18:11      Profile for Aditu     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I think that after a certain amount of time you just have tenure. And logical or not Pluto has tenure. [Smile]

Christine Lavin wrote a great song called Planet X about this debate. It includes these verses

(Some scientists say)
That Pluto is a "trans-Neptunian interloper"
swept away by an unknown force
or a remnant of a wayward comet
somehow sucked off course
others say that Pluto is an asteroid
in the sun's gravitational pull
but if you ask Clyde Tombaugh
he'll tell you "That's all 'bull'."

"I get hundreds of letters from kids every year." he says,
"It's Pluto the planet they love.
It's not Pluto the comet,
It's not Pluto the asteroid
they wonder about above."
And at the International Astronomical Union Working Group
For Planetary System Nomenclature
They too say that Pluto is a planet
reinforcing Clyde Tombaugh's view of nature.

Norwegian Kaare Aksnes,
professor at the Theoretical Astrophysics Institute
He too says that Pluto is a planet
and a signficant one, to boot
but at the Unversity of Colorado
astronomer Larry Esposito
says "If Pluto were discovered today,
it would not be a planet. End of discussion. Finito."


http://www.christinelavin.com/planetx.html

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Ashitaka

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 01:10      Profile for Ashitaka     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Thorned0Fortress:
I think that Pluto should stay a planet.
Man, I am such a DORK.
My friends will want to hang out and I'll say, "GREAT! There will three planets visible tonight and such-and-such time."
The other night I actually had a dream about star gazing.

Do you have any rationality to back up why you believe this?

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Ashitaka

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 01:12      Profile for Ashitaka     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Aditu:
I think that after a certain amount of time you just have tenure. And logical or not Pluto has tenure. [Smile]


This is like saying that element shou;ld still be considered the smallest thing in the universe becuase they were thought to be the smallest thing for so long, until we started splitting them. As was mentioned previously, accepting change when evidence comes along is science.

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The Famous Druid

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 02:15      Profile for The Famous Druid     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Just a thought - It was the recent discovery of 'Xena' that created the need for a new "Dwarf Planet" category - wouldn't "Warrior Planet" have been more appropriate?

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GrumpySteen

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 07:33      Profile for GrumpySteen     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Ashitaka wrote*:
This is like saying that element should still be considered the smallest thing in the universe becuase they were thought to be the smallest thing for so long, until we started splitting them. As was mentioned previously, accepting change when evidence comes along is science.

By that logic, we should change the elemental symbol for copper from Cu (which came from cuprum, the ancient name for Cyprus, famed for it's copper mines). Times change, however, and Cyprus is no longer a major exporter of copper. Chile seems to be the largest exporter of copper in the world and, happily, I think that Ch is available.

This isn't just an arbitrary renaming of something, however... accepting this change is science. [Razz]

*I removed a stray semicolon from the quote, so it's not 100% exact. Deal.

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Ashitaka

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 07:58      Profile for Ashitaka     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Steen:
Ashitaka wrote*:
This is like saying that element should still be considered the smallest thing in the universe becuase they were thought to be the smallest thing for so long, until we started splitting them. As was mentioned previously, accepting change when evidence comes along is science.

By that logic, we should change the elemental symbol for copper from Cu (which came from cuprum, the ancient name for Cyprus, famed for it's copper mines). Times change, however, and Cyprus is no longer a major exporter of copper. Chile seems to be the largest exporter of copper in the world and, happily, I think that Ch is available.

This isn't just an arbitrary renaming of something, however... accepting this change is science. [Razz]

*I removed a stray semicolon from the quote, so it's not 100% exact. Deal.

You are arguing semantics. I am not. Change the name of copper. It is still copper.(or cuprum or cupfer or cuivre or rame) A rose by any other name is still a rose. The thing here is recent data has shown that Pluto is not really a planet. It would be like discovering that something that was thought to be an element, is really a compound.

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littlefish
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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 08:02      Profile for littlefish   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
By that logic, we should change the elemental symbol for copper from Cu (which came from cuprum, the ancient name for Cyprus, famed for it's copper mines). Times change, however, and Cyprus is no longer a major exporter of copper. Chile seems to be the largest exporter of copper in the world and, happily, I think that Ch is available.
That is a misinterpretation of what was said. I'm not sure whether it is wilful, so I'll correct you.

Changing the chemical symbol from Cu to Ch would be like renaming "pluto" to "billy". It has no relevance to what the thing actually is.

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GrumpySteen

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 08:19      Profile for GrumpySteen     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Oh, so our calling or not calling Pluto a planet has relevance to what it really is?

Did Pluto gain or lose mass? Change shape? Was its orbit altered? How, exactly, did our saying that chunk of rock and ice that's about half the size of the moon make it any different today than it has been for the last few millenia?

I'd really like to know, because I missed the part of the press release where they detailed how this was not an arbitrary redefinition of the word planet and was, in fact, a fudamental change of reality.

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Astronomer Jedi
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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 09:13      Profile for Astronomer Jedi   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by The Famous Druid:
Just a thought - It was the recent discovery of 'Xena' that created the need for a new "Dwarf Planet" category - wouldn't "Warrior Planet" have been more appropriate?

The next dwarf planet discovered should be called Gimli [Razz]

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Grummash

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 10:42      Profile for Grummash     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
originally posted by Astronomer Jedi:
The next dwarf planet discovered should be called Gimli

Bashful perhaps? Or Sleepy? Maybe Grumpy? I'm not sure what would happen if we discover more than seven. [Confused] [Razz]

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Icon 2 posted August 28, 2006 10:54      Profile for SpazGirl   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Well, most people have trouble remembering the seven dwarves as it is [Razz] .
/me curses having to make up new ways to remember what is a planet, what isn't "technically" and what order they all go in.

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Tech Angel
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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 11:13      Profile for Tech Angel     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Steen:
By that logic, we should change the elemental symbol for copper from Cu (which came from cuprum, the ancient name for Cyprus, famed for it's copper mines). Times change, however, and Cyprus is no longer a major exporter of copper. Chile seems to be the largest exporter of copper in the world and, happily, I think that Ch is available.

Actually, that analogy is not quite correct. No one is renaming "Pluto"; they're reclassifying it. As was mentioned earlier, science is a process of understanding the world around us and organizing that knowledge in ways to facilitate further investigation. We look at how things are alike and how they are different and categorize them in ways that help us better understand them. So we group animals with certain characteristics under a particular genus and species; elements that behave certain ways as metals and non-metals; rocks as sedimentary, igneous, or metaphorphic, etc. The category name doesn't change the item -- it merely groups it with others sharing similar characteristics.

The more we've learned about Pluto, the more we realize how much it's not like the other eight bodies called "planets" and, in fact, has more in common with another group of smaller bodies with orbits well outside the ecliptic plane. Based on our current understanding, those characteristics also indicate they may have come into being by a different process. So we decide that these differences are significant enough to be recognized as a subcategory of planet ("dwarf planet").

Along those lines, you might find this article from the Houston Chronicle interesting.

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Ashitaka

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 11:13      Profile for Ashitaka     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Steen:
Oh, so our calling or not calling Pluto a planet has relevance to what it really is?

Did Pluto gain or lose mass? Change shape? Was its orbit altered? How, exactly, did our saying that chunk of rock and ice that's about half the size of the moon make it any different today than it has been for the last few millenia?

I'd really like to know, because I missed the part of the press release where they detailed how this was not an arbitrary redefinition of the word planet and was, in fact, a fudamental change of reality.

So I forget how many million miles away pluto is but it is pretty far away. Because it was so far away, until recently we havn't really gotten a good look at it. Now that we have seen it better we have realised that it is not a plantet. (Planets out so far should be gas giants not rocks. )

i.e.
It is like you are on an ocean beach looking at something on the horizon. At first you look think it is a cruise ship. Then you find a telescope and take a better look and you see that is is just a small fishing boat. Should you still consider it to be a cruise ship becuase when you first looked at it without a telescope you thought it looked like a cruise ship? Does the amount of time that passed before you found the telescope determine what is out there? That is the flaw in your logic Steen.

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littlefish
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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 12:31      Profile for littlefish   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Oh, so our calling or not calling Pluto a planet has relevance to what it really is?

Did Pluto gain or lose mass? Change shape? Was its orbit altered? How, exactly, did our saying that chunk of rock and ice that's about half the size of the moon make it any different today than it has been for the last few millenia?

This is what I was trying to say. Pluto hasn't changed any. It is still a small hunk of rock orbiting the sun, many miles away. What people want to change is what the word planet means. (Actually I think what they want to do is define it rigidly, as before the lines between comets asteroids and planets were fuzzy).

If pluto remains a planet, then many other celestial bodies should be called planets too. Just when is something whizzing through space a planet? Would people be just as annoyed if Halley's comet was renamed Halley's planet?

Whether it is called a planet or not, it is still a big rock hurtling through space. Whether it is called a planet or not, there are not 9 planets. (Unless you choose a circular definition)

Let's just call it a satellite, and be done with it.

EDIT: Or we could just ask pluto itself.

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Mel
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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 14:08      Profile for Mel     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by The Famous Druid:
Just a thought - It was the recent discovery of 'Xena' that created the need for a new "Dwarf Planet" category - wouldn't "Warrior Planet" have been more appropriate?

"In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. The power. The passion. The danger. Her courage would change the world!"

 -

I heart Halloween [Smile]

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GrumpySteen

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Ashitaka wrote:
So I forget how many million miles away pluto is but it is pretty far away. Because it was so far away, until recently we havn't really gotten a good look at it. Now that we have seen it better we have realised that it is not a plantet. (Planets out so far should be gas giants not rocks. )

Umm... a gas giant out that far would never stay in a stable orbit. Not enough gravitational attraction from the central mass to keep it orbiting. Planets do not come conveniently arranged by size.

i.e.
It is like you are on an ocean beach looking at something on the horizon. At first you look think it is a cruise ship. Then you find a telescope and take a better look and you see that is is just a small fishing boat. Should you still consider it to be a cruise ship becuase when you first looked at it without a telescope you thought it looked like a cruise ship? Does the amount of time that passed before you found the telescope determine what is out there? That is the flaw in your logic Steen.


No, the flaw is still yours. Using your own example, what we've done with Pluto would be akin to deciding that cruise ships must be over a certain weight and carry a certain number of passengers. Since the fishing boat doesn't fit the new definition, we've now decided that it is unfit to be called a cruise ship even if, for the last 80 yearss, the owners have been using it to run fishing cruises for paying passengers.

Nothing has been renamed. The definition has been changed rather arbitrarily, which gives rise to the potential for confusion unless you can redo every common reference that says there are nine planets in our solar system.

Going back to my first post, a new term would make far more sense than invalidating so much documentation that will never be updated.

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MacManKrisK

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 15:15      Profile for MacManKrisK     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by SpazGirl:
Well, most people have trouble remembering the seven dwarves as it is [Razz] .
/me curses having to make up new ways to remember what is a planet, what isn't "technically" and what order they all go in.

The third one is easy... the new menemonic is:
My Volkswagen Emits Mick Jagger Songs Until Noon

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The Famous Druid

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 15:23      Profile for The Famous Druid     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Steen:
No, the flaw is still yours. Using your own example, what we've done with Pluto would be akin to deciding that cruise ships must be over a certain weight and carry a certain number of passengers. Since the fishing boat doesn't fit the new definition, we've now decided that it is unfit to be called a cruise ship even if, for the last 80 yearss, the owners have been using it to run fishing cruises for paying passengers.

Sorry Steen, but it's your example that's flawed here.

A more accurate analogy would be this...

Some people on an island observed a cruise ship sailing past, it was the first nautical vessel they'd ever seen, and they called it "Cruise Ship"

Over the years, several other nautical vessels came past, and all were called "Cruise Ship" by the islanders.

After a while, the islanders noticed that several of these "Cruise Ships" were quite small, trailing nets, and catching fish, so a new classification of "Fishing Boat" was introduced. Some of the vessels previosly described as "Cruise Ships" were re-classified as "Fishing Boats".

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Ashitaka

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 15:34      Profile for Ashitaka     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Steen:

Umm... a gas giant out that far would never stay in a stable orbit. Not enough gravitational attraction from the central mass to keep it orbiting. Planets do not come conveniently arranged by size.


Gravity is a funtion/property of Mass. The more mass, the greater the gravitational pull.

Planets do come conveniently arranged by size, at least in this solar system . All the small rocky planets are closer to the sun and the larger gas giants are further away from the sun.

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Ashitaka

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Icon 1 posted August 28, 2006 15:36      Profile for Ashitaka     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Mel:
quote:
Originally posted by The Famous Druid:
Just a thought - It was the recent discovery of 'Xena' that created the need for a new "Dwarf Planet" category - wouldn't "Warrior Planet" have been more appropriate?

"In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. The power. The passion. The danger. Her courage would change the world!"


 -

I heart Halloween [Smile]

Nice costume but can you do the War cry?

If so I want a sound bite.

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-Assif Mandvi

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