A dwarf planet is a small planetary-mass object that is in direct orbit of the Sun, smaller than any of the eight classical planets but still a world in its own right. The prototypical dwarf planet is Pluto. The interest of dwarf planets to planetary geologists is that they may be geologically active bodies, an expectation that was borne out in 2015 by the Dawn mission to Ceres and the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
Astronomers are in general agreement that at least the nine largest candidates are dwarf planets: Pluto, Eris, Haumea, Makemake, Gonggong, Quaoar, Sedna, Ceres, and Orcus. Of these and the tenth-largest candidate Salacia, all but Sedna have either been visited by spacecraft (Pluto and Ceres) or have at least one known moon (Pluto, Eris, Haumea, Makemake, Gonggong, Quaoar, Orcus, and Salacia), which allows their masses and thus an estimate of their densities to be determined. Mass and density in turn can be fit into geophysical models in an attempt to determine the nature of these worlds. Some astronomers include many smaller bodies as well, but there is no consensus that these are likely to be dwarf planets.
The term dwarf planet was coined by planetary scientist Alan Stern as part of a three-way categorization of planetary-mass objects in the Solar System: classical planets, dwarf planets, and satellite planets. Dwarf planets were thus conceived of as a category of planet. However, in 2006, the concept was adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as a category of sub–planetary objects, part of a three-way recategorization of bodies orbiting the Sun: planets, dwarf planets and small Solar System bodies. Thus Stern and other planetary geologists consider dwarf planets and large satellites to be planets, but since 2006, the IAU and perhaps the majority of astronomers have excluded them from the roster of planets.