Closest Exoplanet Deserves a ‘Real’ Name, Says Uwingu

It’s time to “get real” about naming exoplanets, says Uwingu CEO and scientist Dr. Alan Stern. And so the latest project from the space funding startup company is a contest to name the nearest exoplanet, currently known as Alpha Centauri Bb.

“Let’s face it,” Stern told Universe Today, “the current names astronomers use for exoplanets are boring. The public is really excited about all the planets that are being found around other stars, but the names do nothing to help fuel that excitement. We’re giving the public the chance to name the closest exoplanet.”

Nominations for new names for Alpha Centauri Bb cost $4.99; votes for nominated names are $0.99. Proceeds from naming and voting will help fuel new Uwingu grants to fund space exploration, research, and education.

The names won’t be officially approved by the International Astronomical Union, but Stern 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) that everyone ends up using.

“Or it’s like Pike’s Peak,” said Stern of the mountain in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. “People started calling it that long ago and over time, it 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.”

So far, the IAU’s stance on naming exoplanets is that there is seemingly going to be so many of them, (we’re nearing the 1,000 mark) that it will be difficult to name them all.

In fact here is their official statement on their website:

In response to frequent questions about plans to assign actual names to extra-solar planets, the IAU sees no need and has no plan to assign names to these objects at the present stage of our knowledge. Indeed, if planets are found to occur very frequently in the Universe, a system of individual names for planets might well rapidly be found equally impracticable as it is for stars, as planet discoveries progress.

“The IAU has had ten years to do something about this and they haven’t done anything,” said Stern. “What we’re doing might be controversial, but that’s OK. It’s time to step up to the plate and do something.”

Previously Uwingu has offered the chance to create a “baby book” of names that can be used for exoplanets. For this contest, they are naming a specific planet, and the name getting the highest number of votes will be declared the public’s name for this mysterious new world. “Never before has the public been asked to choose its favorite name for a planet,” says Uwingu.

Anyone can nominate one or more names; anyone can vote. The namer of the most popular new name for alpha Cen Bb will receive prizes from Uwingu; there will also be prizes for runner-ups, and for all names that reach thresholds of 100, 1,000, and 10,000 votes.
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There are those who have been critical of Uwingu, but our stance is that Uwingu is so far the only group or organization to step forward with innovative, out-of-the-box ways to try and solve what seems to be a continuous, perennial problem: how to fund creative space and astronomy projects and move beyond the old tried and not always true methods of relying on government grants and subsidies or angel donors.

Former president of the IAU Planetary Systems Science body, Karen Meech told Universe Today last year that since the IAU is the only scientifically recognized arbiter of astronomical names, any contests for names from the public will not be officially recognized by the scientific community.

But, it’s obvious people love to name things and people are eventually going to start referring to endearing exoplanets with “real” names instead of the license-plate like names currently used.

“Who knows,” said Stern. “There could be a real Pandora or Tatooine out there.”

Check out the contest at Uwingu

Want to Name an Exoplanet? Uwingu Has a Plan

Screenshot from the Uwingu exoplanet naming website.

Astronomers have now discovered nearly 1,000 planets orbiting other stars, and right now these exoplanets all have boring, license-plate-like names, such as HD85512 and GJ 436 instead of endearing, “real” planet names that might offer hints of what that world could be like. And recall the recent extrapolation of how many habitable planets might be in the Milky Way? A team using the ESO’s HARP’s spectrograph determined there might be upwards of 160 billion worlds out there for us to find, and perhaps eventually name. How might we come up with that many names?

Uwingu, a startup company that is hoping to use innovative ways to fund space and astronomy research, has an idea of how to do that. Their first commercial project is to challenge people to create a ‘baby book of planet names’ for all these planets, as suggestions for future names for other worlds.

“The many, many planets discovered across the galaxy in past 20 years are a tribute to our natural human desire to explore beyond the horizon,” said noted planet hunter Dr. Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley, who is also an advisor for Uwingu. “Now people all over the world can participate in these discoveries in a new way, giving identities and even personality to billions of planets in our galaxy for the first time.”

How does this raise money for space science? Submitting suggestions for names cost $.99 each, and Uwingu will use proceeds from this project and future ones to create funds for grants that space researchers, space educators, and project teams can apply to use.

Uwingu’s first project is technically now in “beta testing,” and in a press release, the organization said the public can participate immediately, helping to generate a new source of funds for space exploration, research, and education.

But it doesn’t end with just suggestions. People can vote on the top names (each vote also costs $.99), and as Uwingu CEO and founder Alan Stern told Universe Today, they are hoping the voting goes viral among the social media savvy.

“This is a way for people everywhere to connect with space,” he said. “You can suggest a name and tell all your friends to vote, and the top names will be the first to be used. If you nominate the name of someone famous, hopefully they’ll get in on the excitement and ask their fans to vote, too.”

The Uwingu team suggests nominating planet names for your favorite town, state, or country, your favorite sports team, music artist, or hero, your favorite author or book, your school, your company, for your loved ones and friends, or even for yourself.

The names won’t be officially approved by the International Astronomical Union, but 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.

Initial reactions to the planet naming project – and to Uwingu itself — have been mixed. During their Indigogo fundraising, the Uwingu team didn’t disclose what types of things they would be selling or doing to raise funds, which was a concern to some in the space and astronomy community who normally support almost any space-related initiative. In a previous interview with UT, Stern said being secretive was a way to generate interest and likened it to how Apple announces a new product.

While there seems to be excitement about the opportunity to suggest names for exoplanets (as of this writing 74 names had been nominated, with numerous votes for each name), some early reactions have been that this might be similar to the ‘name a star’ registries that are unofficial and quite expensive.

IAU’s stance on naming exoplanets has been that since it appears there are going to be so many of them, naming them will be difficult. However, in an email reply, the former president of the IAU Planetary Systems Science body, Karen Meech said that at the IAU meeting in Beijing this summer there was discussion about the need to set up a group to look into the issue of exoplanet names.

And Meech did confirm that since the IAU is the only scientifically recognized arbiter of astronomical names, any contests for names from the public will not be officially recognized by the scientific community.

But if the problem is in the amount of names that will be required, that’s where Uwingu’s crowd sourcing idea seems to fit the need.

And for those who are critical of Uwingu’s methods, Uwingu is so far the only group or organization to step forward with innovative, out-of-the-box ways to try and solve what seems to be a continuous, perennial problem: how to fund creative space and astronomy projects and move beyond the old tried and not always true methods of relying on government grants and subsidies or angel donors.

Uwingu is at least trying something different, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Stern said earlier that Uwingu’s projects would appeal to the general public, not just the space and astronomy community, to provide a bigger marketplace for their projects. He indicated Uwingu will be coming out with another project in a few months.

We humans love to name things: we name our cars, spacecraft and rocks, craters and hills on other planets. NASA has had contests to name missions, rovers, and modules on the ISS, all of which has generated excitement among the public. Science and science fiction fans have expressed disappointment at the names given to exoplanets so far (they certainly aren’t as intriguing as names we’ve come to love like Tatooine, Pandora, Vulcan or Hoth.) Uwingu is using that innate need/love of naming things to try and move space science and astronomy into a new era.

Final Push: Help Uwingu Create a New Concept for Funding Space Exploration and Astronomy

We’ve written about Uwingu previously, and this creative new concept for creating funding for space exploration and astronomy is now in their final push to reach their Indigogo goal of raising an initial $75,000 through their Indiegogo page (similar to Kickstarter) to get the company going. After that, they hope to be self-sufficient and build enough resources to be a source of grants and funding for space and astronomy research. Indigogo provided the group a rare extension in their funding-raising drive, which now goes through Monday night, September 24 at 11:59PM Pacific Time.

Why Uwingu?

“It seems like every single year there is a funding problem for space researchers and educators, and every year it is something different,” said one the people behind Uwingu, Alan Stern, speaking on Colorado Public Radio. “It’s the economy or Congress or budget overruns, or cuts from the presidential administration, but every year there is a budget battle. … We started to think, what could we do that could make a difference?”

Stern is a huge name in the space and planetary science community, and he’s currently the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and was formerly Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

Stern and the impressive group of individuals from the space and astronomy community who have teamed up to do this had the idea of creating a for-profit company that sells space themed products that children, educators, hobbyists — a wide range of people — who can purchase and enjoy. Half of all revenue go towards funding space research and education, and the other will go towards the costs of creating what they sell. Plans are to sell entertaining and educational apps about space and other themes, starting next month.

“We are asking people to go the Indiegogo page, take a look and consider participating, and then to please pass it on to others you know.” Stern told Universe Today. “For everyone 10 people you send it to, maybe one will contribute. This needs to grow organically by people passing it on through the internet. We’re hoping the space and astronomy people will help give us a start, but when it launches with the real first products out into the broader public, we think it will be a real breakout.”

“If we can get that message across, I think it will fly. I have faith in this,” Stern added.

As the funding period closes out, Stern will be on the Coast-to-Coast radio show with George Noory from 10-midnight PDT on Monday, September 24, so listen to him talk about Uwingu, New Horizons and the other missions he is part of.

To contribute to the project, or to learn more about Uwingu, visit the company’s Indiegogo page: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/180221

A Creative New Concept for Funding Space Exploration and Astronomy

An impressive group of individuals from the space and astronomy community have teamed up to create an innovative, out-of-the-box concept to help solve what appears to be a growing problem for researchers, scientists, educators and students: how to get funding for research and other ground-breaking projects. With NASA and National Science Foundation budgets shrinking, a new start-up called Uwingu (which means “sky” in Swahili) will be working to provide ways to keep space science thriving.

Founders of the project include notable names like Alan Stern, Andrew Chaikin, Pamela Gay, Geoff Marcy, Mark Sykes, David Grinspoon, and Emily CoBabe-Amman.

Stern told Universe Today that the group’s initiative is not so much in response to the current government funding troubles, but a way to expand resources for the space and astronomy community, which is “just smart business,” he said.

However, it is an indication of changing times. “We couldn’t do this without the internet, frankly, which provides a new avenue for reaching people,” Stern said.

Additionally, Stern contrasted space and astronomy research, which mainly relies on NASA and NSF grants, to medical research, which has multiple lines of funding venues such as pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the hundreds of medical foundations such as the American Cancer Society, in addition to government grants.

While Stern explained that he couldn’t yet reveal all the details of Uwingu, he did provide a few hints.

“The idea is to provide outstanding, innovative and cutting edge products,” he said. “We won’t just be accessing space and astronomy people who want to give to a cause, but will be accessing the general public, which is a much bigger marketplace.”

Dr. Pamela Gay wrote about Uwingu on her Starstryder website, saying “Their ideas are so elegant that I can’t believe they haven’t already been done.”

While the team is still finalizing some of their concepts, part of their reticence is building suspense. “Just like any new product line, it’s part of building suspense, just like Apple does when they release a new product. But we have a whole series of projects in work, and we want to do it right, too.”

Stern said part of what they are doing is to be a safety net for the space and astronomy community and part of it is to do new things. But, he added, when people have the greatest need is probably a good time to launch a project like this.

Uwingu is looking to raise an initial $75,000 through their Indiegogo site (similar to Kickstarter) to get the company going. After that, they hope to be self-sufficient and build enough resources to be a source of grants and funding for space and astronomy research.

“We are asking people to go the Indiegogo page, take a look and consider participating, and then to please pass it on to others you know.” Stern said. “For everyone 10 people you send it to, maybe one will contribute. This needs to grow organically by people passing it on through the internet. We’re hoping the space and astronomy people will help give us a start, but when it launches with the real first products out into the broader public, we think it will be a real breakout.”

“If we can get that message across, I think it will fly. I have faith in this,” Stern added.

To contribute to the project, or to learn more about Uwingu, visit the company’s Indiegogo page: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/180221