IAU Issues Response To Uwingu’s Exoplanet Naming Campaign

by Nancy Atkinson on April 12, 2013

An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist's impression). Via the IAU.

An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist’s impression). Via the IAU.

Given the popularity of the recent contest by Uwingu to suggest names for the closest known exoplanet to Earth (officially named Alpha Centauri Bb or ACBb for short), the International Astronomical Union has issued a statement about their stance on the “official” naming process. The IAU says that while they welcome the public’s interest in being involved in recent discoveries, as far as they are concerned, the IAU has the last word.

“In the light of recent events, where the possibility of buying the rights to name exoplanets has been advertised, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) wishes to inform the public that such schemes have no bearing on the official naming process. The IAU… would like to strongly stress the importance of having a unified naming procedure,” said the statement issued by the IAU.

Scientist Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and CEO Uwingu told Universe Today that he thinks the IAU should side with democracy instead of elitism.

“I think it is diminishing that the IAU is holding onto their claim that they own the Universe,” he said via phone after reviewing the IAU’s statement. “This is like some 15th century European academic club claiming that since Columbus discovered America, they own all the naming rights. That’s BS.”

While the IAU provides official names for stars and planetary bodies in our Solar System, the IAU’s official stance on naming exoplanets has been that since there is seemingly going to be so many of them, (over 800 have been discovered so far) that it will be difficult to name them all. They’ve said the consensus among IAU scientists was that they had no interest in naming exoplanets.

However, they recently added a few sentences on their website that “the IAU greatly appreciates and wishes to acknowledge the increasing interest from the general public in being more closely involved in the discovery and understanding of our Universe. As a result in 2013 the IAU Commission 53 Extrasolar Planets and other IAU members will be consulted on the topic of having popular names for exoplanets, and the results will be made public on the IAU website.”

Stern thinks the IAU’s current stance on naming exoplanets is tactical mistake. “The taxpaying public pays for all the exploration that the IAU members are doing, but the IAU is making an attempt to limit the public’s involvement in something that the public clearly likes to do,” he said. “As an astronomer, that’s my view.”

Uwingu, a startup company that is using out-of-the-box ideas to raise funds for space exploration and science, started an exoplanet naming contest last fall, and the contest to provide a better, “snappier” name for ACBb was started in March, 2013.

Stern knew going into this that the names wouldn’t officially be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but said they will be similar to the names given to features on Mars by the mission science teams (such as Mt. Sharp on Mars –the IAU-approved name is Aeolis Mons) or even like Pike’s Peak, a mountain in Colorado which was named by the public, in a way, as early settlers started calling it that, and it soon became the only name people recognized.

“This should be the wave of the future for planets and there’s no reason for the public not to get involved,” Stern said.

In today’s statement, the IAU said the “certificates” people receive after suggesting a name in Uwingu’s contest are “misleading, as these campaigns have no bearing on the official naming process — they will not lead to an officially-recognized exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued.”

The IAU conceded that while exoplanet names such as 16 Cygni Bb or HD 41004 Ab may seem boring compared to the names of planets in our own Solar System, “the vast number of objects in our Universe — galaxies, stars, and planets to name just a few — means that a clear and systematic system for naming these objects is vital. Any naming system is a scientific issue that must also work across different languages and cultures in order to support collaborative worldwide research and avoid confusion.”

And to make that possible, the IAU should act as a single arbiter of the naming process, they said.

“As an international scientific organization, [the IAU] dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of selling names of planets, stars or or even “real estate” on other planets or moons. These practices will not be recognized by the IAU and their alternative naming schemes cannot be adopted.”

Information about Alpha Centauri Bb. Information about Alpha Centauri Bb. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory/University of Puerto Rico/Arecibo

Information about Alpha Centauri Bb. Information about Alpha Centauri Bb. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory/University of Puerto Rico/Arecibo

However, several astronomers, including Xavier Dumusque, the lead author of the paper that announced the discovery of ACBb has said they like the idea of having the public involved in naming the exoplanets.

“I would definitively endorse the name for public outreach and lectures,” Dumusque told Alan Boyle of NBC’s Cosmic Log. “In astronomy, we have some chance to be able to make people dream, by showing a wonderful picture, by discovering new worlds. If someone is interested in astronomy, he should not face troubles to understand all the nomenclature. Therefore, giving memorable names for planets is one way to get more people interested in our wonderful research.”

Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin also has been actively participating in the contest and suggested “Tiber” as the name for ACBb. Aldrin is the co-author of a 1977 sci-fi novel titled “Encounter With Tiber.”

IAU’s reticence in naming exoplanets seems to come from the huge bulk of names that will be required. But that’s where Uwingu’s crowd sourcing idea seems to fit the need, and a sort of compromise would be that the public could come up with the names as suggestions in Uwingu’s “baby book” of names, and the IAU would assign the “official” names from the list provided by the public.

If nothing else, Uwingu’s concept has shown how interested the public is in exoplanets and hopefully has given the IAU the kick in the pants needed to possibly consider naming them.

If you’re interested in suggesting names for ACBb, be quick, as the Uwingu contest ends on April 15.


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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