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Astronomer Upset at New Planet Proposal

Still, he is the one whose discovery helped initiate the process.

"Mike deserves a lot of credit for bringing this question to the forefront," said Alan Boss, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C.

"We don't agree on how planets should be defined, but I certainly respect him very much," said Gibor Basri, a University of California, Berkeley astronomer who has known Brown since he was a graduate student. Basri belongs to the camp that believes Pluto is a true planet.

Brown grew up in Huntsville, Ala., nicknamed "Rocket City" because it is the home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. As a kid, he would hear rocket test firings and knew early on that he wanted to be an astronomer.

He would nag his grandparents to take him to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and even asked his mother for a subscription to Astronomy magazine for Christmas. As a teenager, Brown was glued to the Voyager missions to Jupiter and Saturn, but never imagined a career as a planet hunter.

"I loved the planets, but I never thought I wanted to go find a new one," he said. "For a long time, everyone thought Pluto was it. There's nothing further out there."

His perception changed while he was a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, where his colleagues made the first discoveries of icy objects besides Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, the region beyond Neptune containing thousands of comets and objects called planetary bodies.

Brown figured there must be something larger than Pluto in the frozen fringes of the solar system. He joined Caltech's faculty in 1997 and quickly gained a reputation as the man who had a knack for spotting objects with a telescope.

Brown spotted Xena last year after re-examining images taken in 2003. He noticed something strange _ Xena was too big and too bright. He calculated its size from its brightness and had a eureka moment: Xena was larger than Pluto.

The first thing Brown did, he recalls, was phone his wife, who replied: "That's nice, honey. Can you pick up some milk on your way home?"

By Brown's own count, 14 of his discoveries besides Xena are in the running for planethood. That could make Brown the most prolific planet hunter.

But he supports an eight-planet solar system, although he wouldn't mind if Xena was added as the 10th planet.

"When people finally realize the number of planets is going to be much bigger, they'll shake their heads and say 'Astronomers are crazy.'" Brown said.

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On the Net:

Michael Brown: http://www.gps.caltech.edu/mbrown/

International Astronomical Union: http://www.iau.org/


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© 2006 The Associated Press