Weekly Space Hangout – Aug. 16, 2013

Like your space news, but you just can’t handle reading any more? Then watch our Weekly Space Hangout, where we give you a rundown of all the big space news stories that broke this week.

Host: Fraser Cain

Panel: Brian Koberlein, David Dickinson, Nancy Atkinson, Nicole Gugliucci

CIA Comes Clean About Area 51
Elon Musk’s Hyperloop
Space Fence Shut Down
Magnetar Discovered Near the Galactic Core
IAU Updates Their Naming Policy
Bright Nova in Delphinus

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12 pm Pacific / 3 pm Eastern as a live Google+ Hangout on Air. Join us live on YouTube, or you can listen to the audio after the fact on the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast.

IAU Revises Their Stance on Public Involvement in Naming of Exoplanets and Moons

The International Astronomical Union issued a statement on August 14, 2013 that they have changed their official stance on two things: 1. assigning popular names to the numerous extrasolar planets being discovered, and 2. allowing the public to be involved in that naming process.

“It is therefore in line with a long-established global tradition and experience that the IAU fully supports the involvement of the general public, whether directly or through an independent organised vote, in the naming of planetary satellites, newly discovered planets and their host stars,” the online statement said.

This new stance came as a surprise to many.

“I was surprised by the IAU statement encouraging the general public input on naming astronomical objects,” said Professor Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, in an email to Universe Today. “This is certainly something good. …So there is now a public naming procedure that includes the IAU validation but this does not exclude any other non-IAU public naming campaigns.”

As recently as late March, 2013, the IAU’s official word on naming exoplanets was, “the IAU sees no need and has no plan to assign names to these objects at the present stage of our knowledge.”

Their rationale was since there is seemingly going to be so many exoplanets, it will be difficult to name them all.

But then, on about March 24, the IAU added this to their website:

“…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.”

Artistic rendition of a sunset view from the perspective of an imagined Earth-like moon orbiting the giant planet, PH2 b. Image Credit: H. Giguere, M. Giguere/Yale University
Artistic rendition of a sunset view
from the perspective of an imagined Earth-like moon orbiting the giant planet, PH2 b. Image Credit: H. Giguere, M. Giguere/Yale University

This new decision follows a line of events earlier this year where the SETI Institute and the space company Uwingu organized their own campaigns/contests for creating popular names of objects in space instead of the rather clinical, scientific names currently assigned to planets, such as HD 41004 Ab. Both events were wildly popular with the general public, but generated discussion about how “official” the names would be. The IAU issued a statement regarding the contests saying that while they welcomed the public’s interest in being involved in recent discoveries, as far as they are concerned, the IAU has the last word. Additionally, they were against “selling” names (Uwingu charged a fee to suggest a name and to vote as a fundraiser for space research.)

“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 April 12, 2013 statement issued by the IAU.

The IAU’s new rules allow for individuals to suggest names of exoplanets and planetary satellites (moons) via email to the IAU (Click here for email address).

Public naming campaigns are also “sanctioned” given they follow a set of rules:

1. Prior to any public naming initiative, often a vote (hereafter “the process”), the IAU should be contacted from the start by Letter of Intent sent to the IAU General Secretary;
2. The process should be submitted in the form of a proposal to the IAU by an organization. Scientists or science communicators may be involved in the process;
3. The organization should list its legal or official representatives and its goals, and explain the reasons for initiating the process for naming a particular object or set of objects;
4. The process cannot request nor make reference to any revenues, for whatever purpose;
5. The process must guarantee a wide international participation;
6. The public names proposed (whether by individuals or in a naming campaign)should follow the naming rules and restrictions adopted for Minor Bodies of the Solar System, by the IAU and by the Minor Planet Center (see here and here
for more details.

Among other rules are that proposed names should be 16 characters or less in length, pronounceable in as many languages as possible, non-offensive in any language or culture, and that names of individuals, places or events principally known for political or military activities are unsuitable.

Also, the names must have the formal agreement of the discoverers.

The new statement also has its critics. People joked on Twitter this morning whether the name of our neighboring planet Mars, named for the god of war, will have to be changed due to the new restrictions on military nomenclature.

Astronomer Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and CEO of Uwingu said he was actually not surprised at the IAU’s new statement.

“Fundamentally it’s still about the public being subservient to IAU committees that pass on recommendations,” he said via an email response to Universe Today. “Old school. Why should the IAU be a traffic cop?”

Stern also said the new statement has several contradictions from the statement the IUA put out on April 12 of this year, such as that “these [naming]campaigns have no bearing on the official naming process — they will not lead to an officially-recognised exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued.” It now would appear that contests that follow the IAU’s rules are OK.

Stern said he has received letters and emails of support from other astronomers, particularly on the “no revenue” provision, noting how astronomy publications and planetariums charge money for their magazines and sky shows.

“If they can do it, why can’t Uwingu — especially since Uwingu’s revenue is used (at least in part) to further the IAU’s own goals, namely, to advance the science of astronomy, and the public’s understanding of it, worldwide?,” Stern quoted one email he received.

Also, the April statement from the IAU said they were the single arbiter of the naming process of celestial objects, while the new August statement says, “The IAU does not consider itself as having a monopoly on the naming of celestial objects— anyone can in theory adopt names the way they choose.”

The statement goes on, “However, given the publicity and emotional investment associated with these discoveries, worldwide recognition is important and the IAU offers its unique experience for the benefit of a successful public naming process (which must remain distinct, as in the past, from the scientific designation issues).”

Since this is a public debate about the public’s involvement in providing popular names for astronomical objects, please add your thoughts in the comments.

IAU Issues Response To Uwingu’s Exoplanet Naming Campaign

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.

Pluto May Soon Have a Moon Named Vulcan (Thanks to William Shatner)

The votes have been tallied and the results are in from the SETI Institute’s Pluto Rocks Poll: “Vulcan” and “Cerberus” have come out on top for names for Pluto’s most recently-discovered moons, P4 and P5.

After 450,324 votes cast over the past two weeks, Vulcan is the clear winner with a landslide 174,062 votes… due in no small part to a little Twitter intervention by Mr. William Shatner, I’m sure.

In other words… yes, the Trekkies have won.

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 2.32.53 PMDuring a Google+ Hangout today, SETI Institute senior scientist Mark Showalter — who discovered the moons and opened up the poll — talked with SETI astronomer Franck Marchis and MSNBC’s Alan Boyle about the voting results. Showalter admitted that he wasn’t quite sure how well the whole internet poll thing would work out, but he’s pleased with the results.

“I had no idea what to expect,” said Showalter. “As we all know the internet can be an unruly place… but by and large this process has gone very smoothly. I feel the results are fair.”

As far as having a name from the Star Trek universe be used for an actual astronomical object?

“Vulcan works,” Showalter said. “He’s got a family tie to the whole story. Pluto and Zeus were brothers, and Vulcan is a son of Pluto.”

And what can you say when even Mr. Spock agrees?

Leonard Nimoy's tweet

The other winning name, Cerberus, is currently used for an asteroid. So because the IAU typically tries to avoid confusion with two objects sharing the same exact name, Showalter said he will use the Greek version of the spelling: Kerberos.

Cerberus (or Kerberos) is the name of the giant three-headed dog that guards the gates to the underworld in Greek mythology.

Now that the international public has spoken, the next step will be to submit these names to the International Astronomical Union for official approval, a process that could take 1–2 months.

(Although who knows… maybe Bill can help move that process along as well?)

Read more about the names on the Pluto Rocks ballot here, and watch the full recorded Google+ Hangout below:

“The Hobbit” Author Gets a Crater on Mercury

Here’s a little something to please fans of space, art and fantasy alike (and those who enjoy all three): on August 6 the International Astronomical Union approved names for 9 craters on Mercury, one of which is named for J.R.R. Tolkien, revered author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (among other seminal fantasy works.)

The crater Tolkien is approximately 30 miles (48 km) in diameter. All 9 newly-named craters are located in Mercury’s north polar region and exhibit radar evidence of water ice hidden in their shadowy pocketses.

IAU procedure for craters on Mercury has them named after “deceased artists, musicians, painters, and authors who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to their field and have been recognized as art historically significant figures for more than 50 years.” Find out who all 9 new craters are named for after the jump:

Egonu, for Uzo Egonu (1931-1996), a Nigerian-born painter who at 13 was sent to England to study art, first at a private school in Norfolk and later at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. Exile, alienation, and the pain of displaced peoples were recurrent themes in his work.

Gaudí­, after Antoni Gaudí­ (1852-1926), a Spanish architect whose work concentrated largely on the Catalan capital of Barcelona. He was very skilled with ceramics, stained glass, wrought-iron forging, and carpentry and integrated these crafts into his architecture.

Kandinsky, for Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), a Russian painter and art theorist credited with painting the first purely abstract works.

Petronius, for Titus Petronius (c. AD 27-66), a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian era.

Prokofiev, for Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor who is considered one of the major composers of the 20th century. His best-known works include the ballet Romeo and Juliet — from which “Dance of the Knights” is taken — and Peter and the Wolf.

Tolkien, for John Ronald Reuel (J. R. R.) Tolkien (1892-1973), an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Tryggvadóttir, for Nina Tryggvadóttir (1913-1968), one of Iceland’s most important abstract expressionist artists and one of very few Icelandic female artists of her generation. She primarily worked in painting, but she also created collages, stained glass work, and mosaics.

Qiu Ying, for Shifu Qiu Ying (1494-1552), a Chinese painter who specialized in the gongbi brush technique, a careful realist method in Chinese painting. He is regarded as one of the Four Great Masters of the Ming Dynasty.

Yoshikawa, for Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962), a Japanese historical novelist best known for his revisions of older classics including The Tale of the Heike, Tale of Genji, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

“These designations expand the opportunities to recognize the contributions to the arts by the most creative individuals from many cultures and eras. The names of those individuals are now linked in perpetuity to the innermost planet.”

– Sean Solomon, MESSENGER Principal Investigator

The craters were imaged by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, currently in extended mission around Mercury. Learn more about the preciousss MESSENGER mission here. (Gollum! Gollum!)

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington 

Warhol Crater Gets Its 15 Minutes of Fame


As pop art icon Andy Warhol said, “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,”  and so here’s an image of the crater on Mercury that now bears his name, set up in the style of one of his multicolored silkscreens.

Warhol is one of 23 craters on Mercury to be recently approved for names by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), joining other notable artists, authors and musicians like Gustav Holst, Rene Magritte and Dr. Seuss who now have craters named in their honor on the first rock from the Sun.

95 km (59 miles) in diameter, Warhol crater features a large, elongated central peak, stepped walls and many of the curious erosions known as hollows.

The original image, seen at top left, was acquired by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft on October 21, 2011, using its Wide-Angle Camera Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument.

With the new list of 23 named craters, there are now 76 officially (and artistically) titled craters on Mercury since MESSENGER’s first pass of the planet in January 2008.

See the original release by the MESSENGER mission team here.

“I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is “In 15 minutes everybody will be famous.”
– Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987)

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

More Surprises From Pluto


Ah, Pluto. Seems every time we think we’ve got it figured out, it has a new surprise to throw at us.

First spotted in 1930 by a young Clyde Tombaugh, for 76 years it enjoyed a comfortable position as the solar system’s most distant planet. Then a controversial decision in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, spurred by suggestions from astronomer (and self-confessed “planet-killer”) Mike Brown*, relegated Pluto to a new class of worlds called “dwarf planets”. Not quite planets and not quite asteroids, dwarf planets cannot entirely clear their orbital path with their own gravitational force and thus miss out on full planetary status. Besides immediately making a lot of science textbooks obsolete and rendering the handy mnemonic “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies” irrelevant (or at least confusing), the decision angered many people around the world, both in and out of the scientific community. Pluto is a planet, they said, it always has been and always will be! Save Pluto! the schoolkids wrote in crayon to planetarium directors. The world all of a sudden realized how much people liked having Pluto as the “last” planet, and didn’t want to see it demoted by decision, especially a highly contested one.

Yet as it turns out, Pluto really may not be a planet after all.

It may be a comet.

But…that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First things first.

Discovery data showing carbon monoxide spectrum. Credit: J.S. Greaves / Joint Astronomy Centre.

Recent discoveries by a UK team of astronomers points to the presence of carbon monoxide in Pluto’s atmosphere. Yes, Pluto has an atmosphere; astronomers have known about it since 1988. At first assumed to be about 100km thick, it was later estimated to extend out about 1500km and be composed of methane gas and nitrogen. This gas would expand from the planet’s – er, dwarf planet’s – surface as it came closer to the Sun during the course of its eccentric 248-year orbit and then freeze back onto the surface as it moved further away. The new findings from the University of St Andrews team, made by observations with the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii, identify an even thicker atmosphere containing carbon monoxide that extends over 3000 km, reaching nearly halfway to Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

It’s possible that this carbon monoxide atmosphere may have expanded outwards from Pluto, especially in the years since 1989 when it made the closest approach to the Sun in its orbit. Surface heating (and the term “heating” is used scientifically here…remember, at around -240ºC (-400ºF) Pluto would seem anything but balmy to us!) by the Sun’s radiation would have warmed the surface and expelled these gases outwards. This also coincides with observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope over the course of four years, which revealed varying patterns of dark and light areas on Pluto’s surface – possibly caused by the thawing of frozen areas that shift and reveal lighter surface material below.

“Seeing such an example of extra-terrestrial climate-change is fascinating. This cold simple atmosphere that is strongly driven by the heat from the Sun could give us important clues to how some of the basic physics works, and act as a contrasting test-bed to help us better understand the Earth’s atmosphere.”

–  Dr. Jane Greaves, Team Leader

In fact, carbon monoxide may be the key to why Pluto even still has an atmosphere. Unlike methane, which is a greenhouse gas, carbon monoxide acts as a coolant; it may be keeping Pluto’s fragile atmosphere from heating up too much and escaping into space entirely! Over the decades and centuries that it takes for Pluto to complete a single year, the balance between these two gases must be extremely precise.

Read more about this discovery on the Royal Astronomical Society’s site.

Pluto's elliptical orbit

So here we have Pluto exhibiting an expanding atmosphere of thawing expelled gas as it gets closer to the Sun in an elliptical, eccentric orbit. (Sound familiar?) And now there’s another unusual, un-planet-like feature that’s being put on the table: Pluto may have a tail.

Actually this is an elaboration of the research results coming from the same team at the University of St Andrews. The additional element here is a tiny redshift detected in the carbon monoxide signature, indicating that it is moving away from us in an unusual way. It’s possible that this could be caused by the top layers of Pluto’s atmosphere – where the carbon monoxide resides – being blown back by the solar wind into, literally, a tail.

That sounds an awful lot, to this particular astronomy reporter anyway, like a comet.

Just saying.

Anyway, regardless of what Pluto is or isn’t, will be called or used to be called, there’s no denying that it is a fascinating little world that deserves our attention. (And it will be getting plenty of that come July 2015 when the New Horizons spacecraft swings by for a visit!) I’m sure there’s no one here who would argue that fact.

New Horizons’ upcoming visit will surely answer many questions about Pluto – whatever it is – and most likely raise even more.


Artist's impression of Pluto's huge atmosphere of carbon monoxide.Credit:P.A.S. Cruickshank.

The new discovery was presented by team leader Dr. Jane Greaves on Wednesday, April 20 at the National Astronomy Meeting in Wales.

Article reference: arxiv.org/abs/1104.3014: Discovery Of Carbon Monoxide In The Upper Atmosphere Of Pluto


*No disrespect to Mr. Brown intended…he was just performing science as he saw fit!



What Are Planets?


Throughout history, the definition of what a planet is has changed and meant various things at the same time depending on who was defining it. Objects like the Sun, which we would now scoff at defining as a planet, was once considered just that, and so was the Moon. Ceres, discovered in 1801, was originally thought to be a planet until astronomer discovered Pallas that has a similar orbit. Astronomers, even using the technology of their time, were able to tell that these objects were not planets. The famous astronomer Sir William Herschel suggested the name “asteroids” which stuck. Asteroids were then accepted as a distinct category.

Several years ago, you may have said that a planet is one of the nine large celestial bodies that orbits the Sun. However, new technology, which made the discovery of many new celestial bodies in various regions, such as the Kuiper Belt, possible also made determining what a planet is more difficult. While a number of people suggested various definitions over the years, none of them were widely accepted.

The issue came to a head in 2005 when an object larger than Pluto is was discovered beyond the Kuiper Belt. This object, which is now called Eris, was a source of division among many. Some astronomers wanted Eris to be the tenth planet while others considered it to be just another asteroid, despite the fact that it is larger than Pluto is. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which usually resolves disputes like this, met in 2005 at a conference, but despite debating the issue, they did not come up with an agreed upon definition. The matter was resumed in summer of 2006 at the next IAU conference.

In August 2006, the IAU finally agreed upon a definition for a planet. The IAU’s official definition was, “A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” An object that has cleared the neighborhood of its orbit is of sufficient size for its gravity to force other objects of similar size out of its orbit. In addition to defining what a planet is, the IAU also created a new category of dwarf planets, which Pluto was reclassified as, and Eris and several other objects were also put in that category. The definition has had severe opposition, especially with many people angry at the demotion of Pluto.

Universe Today has articles on dwarf planets and planet.

For more information, try an overview of the planets and what is a planet.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all the planets including Venus.