IAU Issues Response To Uwingu’s Exoplanet Naming Campaign

by Nancy Atkinson on April 12, 2013

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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.

About 

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

Michael Martinez April 12, 2013 at 5:38 PM

The IAU is sadly misinformed on matters. Since they do not own the planets in question they have no right to claim naming rights for themselves. Their “official names” are only official within the scope their private little network of publications which, frankly, given the immense scope of the universe is pretty damned small.

Me April 12, 2013 at 5:52 PM

The thing is, who the boss? No one should be. Ego’s go away! To be completely fair & balanced, no one org or person(s) should name any Exoplanet unless he/she/they/etc has found said Exoplanet. That is pure common sense. Agreed?

Michael Martinez April 12, 2013 at 5:58 PM

Nope. If you don’t live there you can name it, use your name, and promote that name to other people but as far as I am concerned your name is NOT “official”.

Me April 12, 2013 at 7:12 PM

???…Official? Who cares what name is official. “ME” is a great name. And I suppose your name is official? Yeah right. The “ME” planet..Has a great ring to it…lol. First of all, it must be FOUND. You cannot name a Exoplanet if it has not been located….dah? It makes common sense to be named by the finder/founder of any Exoplanet no matter if it is a 9 yr.old. What difference does it make if you live there or not. 99.999% are most likely non-inhabitable anyways. ..take care.

Michael Martinez April 12, 2013 at 7:36 PM

Well, good luck conquering the universe and imposing “our” official names on it. Next I suppose the IAU and its well-intentioned cronies will begin stamping out the pressing of pennies in arcade galleries (after all, the defacement of currency is a felony).

David Haddad April 12, 2013 at 6:09 PM

Their “private little network” contains almost every known scientific journal in the universe. Objects need to have one unique and unambiguous name for efficient discourse to take place.
If this Uwingu business goes through, every major business with a whimsical marketing department will join in. It’s not too bothersome when a small aerospace startup pulls a stunt like this, but what about when Google tries it? Or McDonald’s?

Michael Martinez April 12, 2013 at 6:26 PM

“Their ‘private little network’ contains almost every known scientific journal in the universe. ”

You can’t seriously believe that, can you? Their private little network is limited to one planet, Earth. What are they going to do if we manage to find life on one of the planets they named, send a “Cease and Desist” letter demanding that the inhabitants stop calling their home whatever name they wish?

This whole dispute is ridiculous.

Ryat April 13, 2013 at 5:11 AM

You and your company shits on anything you can’t control through marketing. Focus on things you are good at like selling Oreos and cigarettes to children and selling my email and personal information.

Torbjörn Larsson April 12, 2013 at 9:07 PM

But from everywhere else, it looks like you are misinformed. IAU were discussing official names for science. Let us compare:

“The biologists is sadly misinformed on matters. Since they do not own the species in question they have no right to claim naming rights for themselves.”

These scientists have _a duty_ to claim naming rights for science. “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,””

The problem comes if you want to have common name rights as well, because no one owns languages. However, that isn’t what concerns IAU.

Dan April 12, 2013 at 7:11 PM

Name what you want, I will still call ‘Canis lupus familiaris’ a dog.

Michael Martinez April 13, 2013 at 4:28 AM

IAU needs to distance itself from the commercial interests. People will name things in their own ways and for their own purposes. IAU has no business trying to discredit business that isn’t pretending to be part of or sanctioned by IAU.

Scientists have a duty not to become overbearing idiots and morons who dip their opinions into every entertainment endeavor.

Ryat April 13, 2013 at 5:14 AM

Scientists have every right to keep vampires like you out of science! Just pony up the money to help the world and shut your trap

Beck45 April 12, 2013 at 5:50 PM

But obviously we can have both names. A scientific name and a common name. As is the case with life forms for example, or chemicals, or other things.

For the common name however, we should probably wait a few decades until we know more about the planet, what it looks like, etc. There’s no rush. Otherwise upon what would you base an English name? If we do it now, it’d be pretty much at random and would probably be changed in the future–possibly by the eventual inhabitants. And don’t forget many of these planets may already have names, since they may already be inhabited!

terrykepner April 12, 2013 at 9:12 PM

And what’s to prevent Google from launching a similar scheme to name the same planet — whose name take priority? And the name selected by the IAU is not a name but a descriptor: “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.”

Aleksandar Kova? April 13, 2013 at 1:30 PM

I agree. But… Please don’t get me wrong… Why does it have to be an “English” name? Why not Chinese, Farsi, Spanish, Portuguese, Slavic languages, Hebrew, Arabic… There are many of us Earthlings here… :) cheers

Beck45 April 13, 2013 at 2:26 PM

Certainly, you are correct. However all of our solar system official planets names are officially in english, are they not? (I don’t know the origin of the names, etc.) Anyway, for no legitimate reason other than criminal barbarity, english is the “universal language’. And this is something we should move toward anyway, is it not? As in measurement, currency, and other standards, a single choice is best and is the future, in my opinion. Again, english hasn’t risen to the top based on merit–it is surely the most idiotic, illogical, inefficient language.

Dunc Kaas April 15, 2013 at 4:49 AM

Origin of the planets in our own solar system is Greek mythology. Earth, also known as Gaia.

Aleksandar Kova? April 17, 2013 at 5:16 AM

I get your point. I also think that one unambiguous name is essential. Thats what IAU is doing. Otherwise, common local names are fine too. Like chemical elements that have international symbols, but are called differently locally. Fe: iron, eisen, tetsu, željezo… So are the celestial bodies. Moon, Mond, Tsuki, Mjesec… So, colloquial names can and should be whatever the people like to use, colloquially. But scientifically, I think that the codes/symbols provided by the IAU are very usable, for now. And I like the fact that they defy linguistic overtones.

Laurel Kornfeld April 12, 2013 at 7:25 PM

Who or what made the IAU the “official” decision-maker for all of the universe? Are they claiming some sort of “divine right?” Science does not work by decree from “on high.” Significantly, the IAU article fails to mention that according to their highly flawed planet definition, not a single exoplanet qualifies to be a planet, as their definition states a planet must orbit the Sun, not a star. Even if that were changed, naming exoplanets would require a revisiting of the planet definition to establish one definition for all solar systems, including ours. That means they would have to account for giant exoplanets in multi-planet systems that cross one another’s orbits, giant exoplanets in comet-like eccentric orbits, binary planet systems, systems with planets all orbiting on different planes, planets that orbit in the opposite direction of their stars, rogue planets that orbit no stars at all, etc.

terrykepner April 12, 2013 at 9:10 PM

They are making the claim because THEY (as in their members) discovered the planets! What right do you have to dispute their rights to name what they discovered?

Patriot April 12, 2013 at 7:36 PM

Bottom line -when I say Jupiter, everyone knows which planet I am talking about. When I say ACBb, scientists are generally agreed on which place we are talking about. If we called it, say Planet Vulcan, some people would be very confused. That’s why we have an organization that standardizes names. That having been said, if the IAU were willing to recognize some type of naming contest, whether commercial or non-commercial, that seems to be harmless and would bring on a variety of names that all earth based scientists could agree upon. Why not, indeed? As far as “official names” goes, it is highly unlikely that mankind will ever know by what name the inhabitants of a planet we consider non-habitable might call themselves unless and until they come here.

There is, by the way, an agency of the US government (and probably other governments) that bestows official names on geographic places here on earth. It standardizes everything. As new features or places are discovered, they get named.

Dav_Daddy April 13, 2013 at 2:43 AM

And much like here no one uses the “official” names. As long as the money is used for research and not to line someones pockets I say more power to them.

DrFredB April 12, 2013 at 7:39 PM

You left out the first sentence, which clearly states that this has to do with schemes to sell naming rights. (“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.”) That explicitly leaves out Uwingu. It’s not all about “U.”

danangel April 12, 2013 at 8:44 PM

Who do the uwingu people claim to represent? If they can name planets, so can I. I’ll start my own planet naming website and each of you here, can start your own site too. We can give each planet fifteen or fifty different names.

Kidding aside, there has to be one ‘official’ planet naming group, and the IAU is the only legitimate group to do this. So, like it or not, uwingu, butt out.

terrykepner April 12, 2013 at 9:07 PM

IAU should be democratic because they are supported by taxpayers? Well, what about the non-democracies that participate in the IAU? If you can invoke naming rights based on financial support, so can they.

Torbjörn Larsson April 12, 2013 at 9:18 PM

I was going to say the same. Obviously science is elitist, not democratic, else it wouldn’t work as well. For example, if every idea should remain on the table.

Stern is Stern, he is going to use sophistry if need be, damn the science. Uwingu/Stern ideas are not bad, Uwingu even knows it is promoting “public” names and not official ones, but the way they go into a defensive stance is.

Aleksandar Kova? April 13, 2013 at 1:48 PM

Exactly, and (no offence meant to US readers) he is pulling that classic U.S. debating nonsense of taxpayers $ = Democracy. This equation doesn’t make much sense to many even in the U.S. let alone the rest of the world. … and we are talking about IAU here…

Yvonne Denise Roche April 12, 2013 at 9:56 PM

It’s a non-issue. We all know that the things and creatures around us have “official” scientific names. We just don’t use them. If a name begins to get around and get used, then that becomes the common name. Nobody controls that process. It just happens. In fact, it is not unusual for a species to have numerous common names. These common names become recognized by virtue of being used, not because someone made them official. Once something has a common name, the scientists will add that name in a description, but the official name will remain. This is simply a fun contest. The winner may or may not wind up having chosen a common name for the exoplanet. It all depends on how many people actually use that name.

Subrak April 12, 2013 at 5:31 PM

It would be nice to have a public naming event to decide the official English Language name for the planet in question… maybe the iau should run such events instead, or officially sponsor Uwingu to find out for them?

Or maybe, it should be left to the person / the team that discovered it.

I won’t say that we, as a species, don’t deserve the right to name the things we find around our little corner of the Milky Way – in fact, we SHOULD name them, and that name SHOULD become universally known for the language-speakers it was decided in… But realistically, I’d rather a group of people decided to call a planet, for example, “Planet Vulcan” instead of “Planet CowPoo” or something of a similar, silly connotation.

Considering, one day, far, far, far in the future, if a madman doesn’t kill us all first, we may get to visit those planets, after all.

Dan April 12, 2013 at 7:05 PM

I believe this is just another example of arrogant academics believing their educational credentials make them owners of the universe and its contents. It is ridiculous for the IAU to even comment on this matter, let alone purvey to the public that we must defer to them when talking about all the objects in the heavens. Don’t we all call every fruit flavored gelatin desert ‘Jello’ no matter what the name on the box is? Come on IAU, get over yourselves. Pluto isn’t even a planet anymore.

GregtheThird April 13, 2013 at 3:07 AM

The main problem as I see it is that with so many planets already discovered, how is the IAU going to keep up? There are going to have to limit their naming responsibilities at some point. And why would they care to name all of them? How much care could they possibly put into naming all of them?

The first step at addressing this problem is to determine which planets people really care about naming. That is going to most likely be those close to home. Would it be those within 10 light years, 20 light years, 30 light years? People probably won’t care about naming a neptune sized planet 700 light years away orbiting 10 AU around an orange dwarf star after we have discovered 15 thousand like it already.

I personally like how the system is evolving naming objects in the solar system. Those who discover an object would have the first opportunity to name it. At their discretion they may decide to open the naming process to the public.This process generates public interest in the research and potentially more political support for governemnt funding for research in this field. The IAU role in the process is a traditional one and as such has its own intrinsic value by maintaining a certain standard which allows for more effective and less confusing communiation about objects that are discovered. Just by hearing the name of an object, you already have an idea that it is a solar system object, what kind of object it is, and where it might be located.
To continue this function to exoplanets, there has to be a need for some kind of universal nomenclature that serves the same purpose. My question is, is that even possible? Can the IAU construct a nomenclature system that is intrinsically helps astronomers communicate about which exoplanets they are talking about? If they cannot, then there is no point to having them oversee the process of naming exoplanets in order to maintain certain standards of nomencalture and this kind of authority should be removed. I do believe that some agency will need to oversee the naming process and rubber stamp it to make it official. So the IAU is a natural choice to serve in this oversight capacity which I think they should retain. A small veto capacity would be needed to exclude proposed names that are offensive to the public. With regards to the IAU it will become impractical for them to come up with unique and creative names for what will eventually be millions of exoplanets.
Here is how I think the naming of exoplanets (beyond the accepted scientific designation) should work: The discovering team shall have the right to name the exoplanet. If the team is publicly funded or using publicly funded equipment, then they should be compelled to open the process up to the public if interested. If neither the public or the discovery team is interested then they may sell the right to name the planet to a private firm in order to generate funds to continue their research. This raises the possibility for raising private investment capital towards private research efforts. There will likely be individuals who have an interest to purchase the right to name objects. The name selected would then be submitted to the IAU to screen it and then rubber stamp it if the name is not offensive to the public.
Ultimately, the naming of exoplanets that matter will eventually be done by those who live there, or travel there if the system is uninhabitable. The inhabitabts will just see the people from the homeworld as crass bureacrats attempting to impose their will on them and ignore whatever name the Earthers think the planet should be called in favor of the name they commonly use.

stevebbb April 13, 2013 at 3:25 AM

Is anyone else weirded out by the monetization of exoplanet discoveries? I mean involving the wider public in naming planets is a fantastic idea, but charging money for it? Even if the money is for a good cause, a) these discoveries are already paid for ultimately by taxpayers, and b) charging even a dollar excludes a lot of kids.

If the purpose is outreach and involvement, why put up a barrier? If the purpose is raising funds, make it an optional donation.

Maybe funding science this way makes sense, but I’m definitely uncomfortable with what I see. Participation in science should be free.

Ryat April 13, 2013 at 5:07 AM

GTFO!!! Uwingu is just a couple slimey business guys trying to scam money from Americans! There is no place for capitalism in science. Capitalism will prove to pervert our future in space. It’s best the “elites” block these vampires every chance they get.

NancyAtkinson April 15, 2013 at 4:32 PM

Better check your facts. Have you actually looked into what Uwingu does? Their staff is composed of almost all scientists who work on a volunteer basis and the money they make in their contests goes entirely to fund space research and exploration.

Servé Vaessen April 13, 2013 at 12:07 PM

I agee fully with the IAU. There has to be an agency who has a last say in naming cosmic objects. The alternative is confusion and chaos. The IAU represents a lot of astronomers in the world, therefore it’s their resposibility to set up some standard in this. Of course the discoverer of a new planet may propose a name, but what if he or she will choose for Adolf Hitler? Uwingu proposes a vote for naming the nearest exoplanet, but in this case the same objection holds true.
Asking money to participate in the vote, no matter how noble the intentions of Uwingu are, sets a precentent to the unsound practice of selling names. So my advice: don’t do it.

David Grinspoon April 13, 2013 at 2:55 PM

IAU maintains names for astronomers and that’s fine, but they do not own the sky. Planets are PLACES not just astronomical research objects, and if informal names for these places proliferate, outside of some self-appointed professional “authority”, and the public at large is more engaged in the exoplanet revolution, that is a very good thing indeed.

Karl Lembke April 13, 2013 at 4:42 PM

I suppose if the scientific community declared that only officially sanctioned Latin names for plants and animals would be used, everyone would quit using common names.
Most people, I suspect, would simply claim their Canis familiaris ate the memo.

Chetan Chauhan April 14, 2013 at 5:43 AM

I remember playing this game called “Reunion” back in the day. Kinda like GalCiv , but on a much more micro level like Star Control 2. What I really loved about the game was you could name every Solar System, Planet and moon you surveyed.

It was fun coming up with original and wacky names for every planet and moon your “satellites” discovered. It was much easier to remember Klothar System-Planet Chang-Moon Emerald than a bunch of numbers like ABBC-B.

One principle is very important here though – Only the person/institution which found the planet has rights to “name” it. So if someone wants to involve johnny public in the naming , it’s their call.

Thekcar DodgeAries April 14, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Agree on a common name/translation that appeals to the greater public; among scientists in the active/actual research, stick to the” official” name. Botanists have done this kind of thing for years, as have others. Expand the interests to the storytellers, teachers, and dreamers who would support the scientific work, if only a piece of the tale, legend, or knowledge can feel, even informally, included in the discoveries….”…a rose, by any other name…” Think about it…

Thekcar DodgeAries April 14, 2013 at 8:04 AM

I know that took a slightly rambling tone; it’s hard to navigate a single-line entry to edit to refinement. Sorry ’bout that. :-)

Me April 12, 2013 at 8:28 PM

Look, I get your IAU implications. Your missing my point. Space is for everyone, correct? Sure is, especially finding such things as Exoplanets. So lets involve all who are participating instead a few. I’ll settle for sending paper work to the IAU to verify such findings & listing of names. Currency & planets are light years apart. Lets not make disparities like apples to oranges, or planets to money or man to woman. This is simple enough. …take care Mike.

Ryat April 13, 2013 at 5:16 AM

That’s what people like you currently do. You are launching a pathetic smear campaign on moral people.

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