The IAU is not amused. The International Astronomical Union, a worldwide organization of more than 10,000 astronomers, is officially in charge of naming celestial bodies and their surface features. Now Uwingu, a venture spearheaded by Alan Stern, planetary scientist and principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, has a plan of its own.
Stern and company announced a contest last month to name the recently-discovered planet around Alpha Centauri. For $4.99 you can submit a name to the growing list of candidates; voting for one costs 99 cents.
Hold on a second. The IAU has already given the new exoplanet a name according to a convention adopted by their naming committee years ago. Any new planet goes by the star’s name followed by a lower case ‘b’. If a second planet is found it’s designated ‘c’, a third ‘d’ and so on, hence Alpha Centauri Bb. The upper case ‘B’ refers to the second largest star in the Alpha Centauri triple star system.
That won’t do for Stern, who would like to see exoplanets receive memorable names like those in our own solar system instead of technical monikers. With 861 discovered to date, that’s a lot of names. Never mind that the IAU has steadfastly said it will not abide by start-ups naming new celestial bodies.
Can you blame them? Imagine if any group could name a new planet, star or remote galaxy after whatever they chose. Before long, we wouldn’t know which object we were talking about since it would end up with multiple designations. I shudder to think where this would go if advertising world stepped in. Planet Apple? Someone has to set and maintain a standard or confusion and misinformation would be inevitable.
Stern understands this and accepts that both the IAU and many professional astronomers will not recognize Uwingu’s winning name. His goal is to get the public involved in the sky and use the money for scientific research and education programs.
It might surprise you at first that name submission and voting costs a couple bucks, but the money goes to fund worthy endeavors like Astronomers Without Borders, the Galileo Teacher Training Program and other science education projects. The organization receives only what it needs to maintain itself. As of today, nearly 4000 people have voted; the most popular name with 562 votes is Rahkat (a planet near Alpha Cenatauri from the sci-fi book The Sparrow) followed by Amara and Heinlein (after the popular science fiction author). Deadline to cast your vote is midnight Eastern Time April 15.
Even though any names voted and picked by Uwingu will have no official status, much like the infamous International Star Registry and its clones, prizes will be awarded for the best planetary names. Click HERE to see what’s trending.
There’s no doubt Stern and his colleagues want to ruffle the IAU’s feathers. Even Dr. Xavier Dumusque, discovered of Alpha Centauri’s planet, endorses the proposal. Stern has his differences with the group including its 2006 vote to demote Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’ status, but his goal of making the organization more responsive to the public has popular appeal. Other astronomers like Dumusque and prolific exoplanet discoverer Dr. Geoff Marcy feel the same way – they don’t believe naming rights belong only to scientists and welcome public involvement.
Who knows? Perhaps the IAU will reconsider its position. A press release from yesterday clearly stating the organization’s position ends with this statement:
“However, 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.”
Do I sense the ice melting?