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An object is named in several ways. Some are named after ancient deities, some are for mythological heroes, and still others get their Solar System name from the astronomers who found them. Here are a few of the different ways that Solar System objects have gotten their name.
All of the largest objects in our Solar System are named after Roman mythological deities. The five inner planets that were visible to the unaided eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were all named in ancient times and had many names across the world. As the Roman Empire expanded and held sway over most of the world, the objects were renamed after Roman gods and goddesses. Those names remain in place. After the discovery of Uranus and Neptune the tradition was firmly ensconced, so they were named accordingly. The dwarf planet Pluto was named in the same fashion, as well.
The Roman mythological theme continues to naming of some of the moons in the Solar System. The exception is the the moons do not necessarily have to be named after deities. Jupiter’s largest moons are perfect examples of objects whose Solar System name is related to a god, but not after a god. They are the names of women associated with Jupiter in mythology. The moons of Uranus are named after female Shakespearean characters.
Asteroids are yet another case. There are far too many to take their names from just one category. Some are named in memory of famous people, animals, and the victims of the Challenger disaster. Still others are named after heroes from the Trojan Wars.
Comets bring up another naming convention: the are named after their discoverer. Comet Halley is a well known example. In the instance that more than one person is responsible for a comet’s discovery, the names are hyphenated. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Comet Hale-Bopp are well known examples.
There are millions of objects in the Solar System that lack a name. Simple given a letter and a string of numbers for their moniker. There are websites where you can name a celestial object. The name you assign will not be the officially recognized Solar System name for that object, but will be a touching gesture for a loved one.
We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast. Check them out here.