The Exoplanet Naming Debate Heats Up

Following last Friday’s press release from the International Astronomical Union (IAU) concerning the naming of extrasolar planets, a heated debate has arisen over two separate but related issues. One is the “official” vs. “popular” names of astronomical objects (and the IAU’s jurisdiction over them) and the other is Uwingu’s intentions in their exoplanet naming contests.

We’re going to talk about the latter first, as this seems to be where much of the contention lies.

As has been reflected in our articles, Universe Today feels that Uwingu has always been upfront that the names chosen in their exoplanet naming contests were never meant to be “officially” recognized by the IAU, but instead are a way to engage the public and to create non-governmental funding for space research. As we said in our article on Nov. 7, 2012 about the first contest that creates a “baby book” of exoplanet names:

The names won’t be officially approved by the International Astronomical Union, but (Alan) Stern said they will be are similar to the names given to features on Mars by the mission science teams (such as the “Jake Matijevic” rock recently analyzed by the Curiosity rover) that everyone ends up using. This also solves the problem of how to come up with names, a task that the IAU has yet to discuss.

Please read these articles on Time and New Scientist which explicitly quote Uwingu CEO Alan Stern as saying the names generated by Uwingu’s contest will not be officially recognized by the IAU, but are a way to get the public involved and excited about exoplanets.

Anyone who implies that Uwingu is like the ‘name a star’ scams, or that they are out to make money to line their own pockets is completely misreading Uwingu’s website and completely missing the point. The profits go towards science research and education. So far Uwingu has given approximately $5,500 to several projects: Astronomers Without Borders, the Galileo Teacher Training Program, the Purdue Multiethnic Training Program, and the Allen Telescope Array for SETI.

Additionally, as the Uwingu Twitter feed confirmed, “No one at Uwingu has ever been paid, we have all worked for free from the start.”

The IAU’s statement on Friday infers that Uwingu is trying to sell “the rights to name exoplanets” and today Uwingu issued a statement that says the IAU’s press release “significantly mischaracterized Uwingu’s People’s Choice contest and Uwingu itself.”

As astronomer Carolyn Collins Petersen wrote on her Spacewriter’s Ramblings blog, nowhere on Uwingu’s website does it say that you’re buying the right to name a planet, as seems to be suggested by the IAU press release.

“If you donate a few dollars, you get to suggest a name,” she wrote. “You donate a few cents and you can vote for the coolest names. The coolest names win prizes. The money goes to research and education.”

And Stern has said the time has come where exoplanets should be named: “The IAU has had ten years to do something about this and they haven’t done anything,” he told Universe Today previously. “What we’re doing might be controversial, but that’s OK. It’s time to step up to the plate and do something.”

And many agree with his point that since the public is obviuosly intrigued and interested in exoplanets, they should be involved in the naming process, if only to suggest names. And as we’ve said before, since the IAU has said it will be difficult to come up with names since there are now hundreds of known explanets, Uwingu’s projects fits the bill of what is needed.

Also from Uwingu’s statement today:

Uwingu affirms the IAU’s right to create naming systems for astronomers. But we know that the IAU has no purview — informal or official — to control popular naming of bodies in the sky or features on them, just as geographers have no purview to control people’s naming of features along hiking trails. People clearly enjoy connecting to the sky and having an input to common-use naming. We will continue to stand up for the public’s rights in this regard, and look forward to raising more grant funds for space researchers and educators this way.

Over the weekend, the debate raged on the various social media outlets, and astronomer Jason Wright wrote a blog post that called out the IAU’s statement, saying it couldn’t be the official IAU policy, because “IAU policy is determined by democratic vote of its commissions and General Assembly. Neither has endorsed any nomenclature for planets, much less the assertions of the press release.”

Wright added that he contacted a member of Commission 53 (the IAU committee that will discuss the future of exoplanet naming) “and learned that they were not consulted for or even informed of this press release before it went out, and that the commission has not established a naming process since it met in Beijing in 2012.”

As far as the difference between “official” and “common” names, the IAU said in their press release 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.”

However, many people have pointed out that other sciences — like biology – have scientific names and common names that are both used and there doesn’t appear to be rampant confusion over this.

But stars can have several names as well, as astronomer Stuart Lowe wrote in his Astroblog, “Currently stars can have one proper name but also be in many different catalogues with different IDs.”

Uwingu pointed out in their statement that the star Polaris (its well-known common name!) is also known as the North Star, Alpha Ursae Minoris, HD 8890, HIP 11767, SAO 308, ADS 1477, FK5 907, and over a dozen more designations.

Uwingu also noted how non-scientific, informal names are prevalent in astronomy. Our own Milky Way galaxy is a great example, and “there are many instances where astronomers name things without going through the IAU’s internal process. There are many of features on Mars, ranging from mountains to individual rocks, with names applied by Mars-mission scientists and never adopted by, or even considered by, the IAU. And Apollo astronauts did not seek IAU permission before naming features at their landing sites or from orbit.”

Also, recent press releases reflect where astronomical objects were given names by astronomers without any IAU process such as Supernova Wilson, Galaxy cluster “El Gordo,” and the “Black Eye Galaxy.” “None drew attention from the IAU,” Uwingu said.

Planetary scientist and educator David Grinspoon (who is on Uwingu’s board of advisors) probably summed it up best in a comment he posted on Universe Today: “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.”

29 Replies to “The Exoplanet Naming Debate Heats Up”

  1. This issue is so simple. No matter who finds/discovers a Exoplanet or many Exoplanets. He/she should/would be able to name his/her Exoplanet. The IAU should have, or soon will have official papers for anyone who wants to publicly enter their Exoplanet(s) discovery/finding(s). K.I.S.S===>Keep-It-Simple-Stupid. ;-)…take care.

      1. lol,…yes it would since they are semi-retired. The IAU could charge a small fee for the funding of various space exploration(s). Such as the continuous search for asteroids/comets NEO’s etc’s…. ..take care

    1. It’s an LLC. Maybe they haven’t gotten paid… yet. Their indiegogo raised $75,000. The two officers of this LLC are named Sol A. Stern (get it?) and S.A. Stern (?). But don’t they deserve to get paid for all the cash they are raising for worthy causes?

      Of course this is not a “name a star” scam! Not at all! These are exoplanets! We already have pictures of them, complete with moons and clouds and binary stars! Now these luminance curve blips need cute everyday names, and the evil IAU has been dragging their feet for TEN YEARS! This is a crime unto science.

      Comet pills, anyone? We’re not really saying the comet would hurt you, we’re just raising awareness in science. It’s all in fun! You buy 100 comet pills for $25, and we donate some money to Universe Today. In return they play along. What’s wrong with that? PANSTARRS PILLS! Get in on my kickstarter and get a cut later (no one has ever been paid), as well as promoting science!

  2. Universe Today has openly taken the side of Uwingu in this matter. Let me put forward another viewpoint, because I suspect this is some kind of a revenge thing. In 2006 Alan Stern vehemently opposed the downfal of Pluto as a planet, caused by the IAU definition of what a planet should be. Is he, as one of the spokesmen of Uwingu, stricking back at the IAU by challenging the IAU’s jurisdiction over the naming process of cosmic objects?

    1. I for one say good for him. Scientists and astronomers can and should use the official nomenclature. Nonscientists such as myself and the overwhelming portion of society would prefer and as I may slightly dyslexic require a name that consists of more that a string of letters and numbers that are very close to the letters and numbers of a thousand other objects that are nowhere near the object we are referring too.

  3. I oppose the suggestion by some that the discoverer and the discoverer only should name a new planet. What if he or she will suggest planet Hitler or Planet shit? Of course, the discoverer can make a suggestion, but there has to be some kind of an official board who will (or won’t) give its final approval.
    This is also my question to Uwingu. Is there some kind of an editing board overlooking the naming and voting process to avoid or delete unacceptable names?

  4. It’s difficult to argue against Uwingu’s freedom to name. However, knowing that their names could be widely used, how inclusive is their own naming process?

    1. Well, it’s Germany in English and Deutschland in German. So if they call it Xshdah we could still call it Pandora.

  5. I have a problem with “the discoverer” getting the right to name or suggest a name for a “discovered” exoplanet and/or exomoon (and yes, we will start discovering exomoons, probably within the next decade or two). In most cases, the discoverer is using equipment and resources funded by an organization and/or government. If I were, for instance, a principal investigator on the Kepler project, I might find hundred or thousands of exoplanets using a satellite and/or ground telescopes to identify and confirm the discoveries all funded by a great deal of tax dollars. These discoveries belong to the people of this country and probably others (a lot of astronomy has multiple country support as well as multiple institutional support). As a result, if some principal investigator was named, for example, Kevin, we might end up with an endless number of Kevin I, Kevin II, Kevin III, Kevin 3256 and so on which is just as horrible as the current naming conventions.

    The I.A.U.A. is the exact wrong body to name exoplanets. The I.A.U. current convention is really very confusing as planets are not named based on logic other than the order in which discovery occurred (Gliese 581g is not furthest from the sun Gliese 581 which you would expect because Gliese 581g was discovered AFTER Gliese 581e, etc). Of course, the problem is that changing the designations to be logical every time a new planet is found around a star would lead to profound confusion and the need to constantly redact any articles, papers, etc. that exist. Names, on the other hand, can be applied and are not confusing. The I.A.U. takes FOREVER to name anything and then it may come up with really arcane names that make no sense to the rest of us.

    There are already some “names” that pretty well describe a few exoplanets such as Tatooine which everyone would recognize as the world that orbits in a binary star system. I don’t know the official designation of the Star or Planet but I bet if you said the Tatooine world, every amateur and professional astronomer would know exactly which planet you are talking about. If we discover a potential habitable moon around a gas giant, I am sure the name Endor will immediately come to mind. There are lots of science fiction stories with lots of fictional planet names and I am sure that many of those names will eventually be associated with a real exoplanet. The planets from Star Wars and Star Trek will probably get used first, if only because of the popularity of those science fiction series — and why should’t they — along with the thousands of other science fiction names.

    What I do not favor is naming planets after people however, when we get out there, I am sure planets will be renamed by those who colonize and/or visit those planets. There are sure to be egomaniacs/tyrants/psychopaths/sociopaths out there that will put their names on as many planets as possible whenever the opportunity arises.

    I am not at all sure that Uwingu should be the organization to propose or suggest planet names but I agree that we must not permit or trust the I.A.U. to name exoplanets/exomoons because the people who are active in such activities in the I.A.U. is a very small minority of professional and amateur astronomers. Much less than half of the I.A.U. members actually had any input to the demotion of Pluto, for instance.

    Personally, I would have liked to see one of the transneptune dwarf planets named Xena … made sense to me and MORE IMPORTANT, would have gotten a LOT OF SUPPORT AND NOTICE from the public WHICH IS WHERE ASTRONOMY FUNDING COMES FROM!!!

    The I.A.U. needs to get their collective heads out of a place where the sun doesn’t shine and PLEASE THE PUBLIC … rather than piss off the public.

    1. Why are Gliese 581g and Gliese 581e confusing and Pandora and Dalaran (random names) not? The first 2 names show the fact that they are planets orbiting Gliese 581 while the last 2 names show absolutely nothing about the planets. Also you said that 581 does not mean the proximity to our solar system, but the order in which they have been discovered. How would a regular name show any relevant information about the star system to which it belongs?

      And I don’t understand the problem people have with the “demotion” of Pluto.

    2. “I bet if you said the Tatooine world, every amateur and professional astronomer would know exactly which planet you are talking about”
      No, I doubt they would. There are several planets that the press has unimaginatively called “the Tatooine world.” And furthermore, as of right now there are a couple dozen cirucmbinary planets known, and that number is sure to increase over time. So no, if you said “the tatooine world,” I would have no idea which planet you’re talking about.

      1. I would know exactly to what he was referring. Although I would have no idea where to find it in the heavens.

  6. Well, as someone who at least has an asteroid named after him, I’d prefer my name also to be used as the correct credit for the above image, not ‘NASA’!

  7. In the end, the excitement for having named a blip in starlight would die down for the not-so-astro curious after a week. And the planet will there afterwards for a few decades to come won’t likely be mentioned outside astronomical journals (using a star name-alphabet nomenclature or, perhaps, with whatever the IAU might come up with) and maybe press releases (rarer). It’s not like the public at large is going to analyse starlight night after night after naming an exoplanet.

    I think the IAU’s position (or whoever released those statements in a hurry) is that they simply want to say “Don’t say we didn’t warn you!”, to those who don’t read the fine print at Uwingu.

  8. One would hope that the contacts on the original IAU press release are receiving lots of email commentary on this, from the public and from professional astronomers, whether members of the IAU or not.

    Contact information:
    Thierry Montmerle
    General Secretary, International Astronomical Union
    Paris, France
    Email: [email protected]

    Alain Lecavelier des Etangs
    President of IAU Commision 53 Exoplanets
    Paris, France
    Tel: +33 1 44 32 80 77
    Email: [email protected]

    Lars Lindberg Christensen
    IAU Press Officer
    Garching bei München, Germany
    Tel: +49 89 320 06 761
    Cell: +49 173 38 72 621
    Email: [email protected]

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