What’s Next, A Planet Named I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Butter?

Artist’s impression of Alpha Centauri Bb orbiting Alpha Centauri B in the triple star system. The sun, at top right, would appear as a bright star in the constellation Cassiopeia from this vantage point. Credit: ESO/L. Calcada/N. Risinger

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.

Of the 861 confirmed exoplanets – planets orbiting stars other than the sun – only 7 to date are potentially habitable worlds with temperatures, sizes and distances from their parent stars conducive to life. Click for details about each one. Credit: PHL@UPR Arecibo

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.

Dr. Alan Stern, founder of Uwingu. Credit: Alan Stern, Uwingu

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.

Alpha Centauri’s planet was discovered using the “radial velocity” method. As an unseen planet revolves around its host star, its gravitational pull tugs the star first toward the Earth, causing the its light to appear bluer (blue squiggles) and then away from Earth, making it to appear redder. By measuring these periodic color changes in a star’s light, astronomers can infer the planet’s presence and calculate its mass. Credit: ESO

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?

10 Responses

  1. BCstargazer

    I don’t think the IAU is the “bad guys” that a lot of astronomy related writers make it to be. As you clearly wrote, “Someone has to set and maintain a standard or confusion and misinformation would be inevitable”.
    To add “mon grain de sel”, I think that the IAU will revisit the status of Pluto after the New Horizons spacecraft fly-by in July 2015 and all the wonders of its multiple moons system makes it clear that it is a planet.
    If the IAU won’t change Pluto’s status, then we can then always start a petition (or a contest) to have it re-named the Tombaugh dwarf planet, with its moons named Tombaugh a, b, c and so on as Astronomy owes so much to Pluto’s gifted discoverer.
    Thank You again Mr King for you tireless work

    1. astrobob

      Like you BC, I think Pluto’s definition will ultimately change but I think it will retain its name. And thanks for your kind words.

  2. Roma

    Hello!! My good friend and I drove up to Duluth today to take a gamble on seeing the lights. Can you recommend a spot? Looks like construction on the way to Brighton beach. Do you recommend we go there or is park point an option?

    Thanks for the help!

    1. astrobob

      Love your adventurous spirit. Are you sure Brighton Beach is blocked? If not, that’s a good spot. You can also take the Lester River Road (runs alongside Lester Park on east side of town) up to the stop sign at Strand Road, continue past and about a half mile later to (I think) Beyer Road. Make a right there – it’s wide open. If it wasn’t for the snow, I’d recommend going up Jean Duluth Rd. past the gas station and turn left at Riley Road then a quick left into the soccer field parking lot. Another option is to take Rice Lake Rd. past Airport Road up to Island Lake and the Island Lake Bridge. It’s wide open there, too. Looks like the sky’s supposed to clear around 9-10 p.m. tonight.

  3. Roma

    Wahoo! Thank you so much!!! We’re loving the crazy sun snow and beautiful weather. Drove up through wisconsin, up to silver bay and back down again. Even if nothing happens tonight, counting over 60 deer from duluth to silver bay was worth it! Thanks Bob.

  4. I hope that those of you who see the IAU eventually revisit the status of Pluto and dwarf planets are right. What many people don’t know is that in 2009, planetary scientists asked the IAU to reopen the planet definition discussion at that year’s General Assembly, but the leadership refused, resulting in those planetary scientists boycotting the conference. The only “authority” the IAU has is by consensus. If enough people reject their definitions and claim to legitimacy in naming celestial bodies, they lose that authority, possibly to another group that is more responsive to the public and dissenting opinions. This past summer, I sent a packet of signed petitions to the General Assembly asking for a reopening of the planet debate in 2015 and received a response that seemed to indicate it wouldn’t be done regardless of new discoveries between now and then. I find that and any attempts to keep the discussion closed problematic.

    1. astrobob

      Thanks Lauren for your perspective on the issue. I didn’t know about the 2009 boycott. Despite the IAU’s hard line on Uwingu, it heartened me a little to see that the naming committee might be open to suggestion. Really, why shouldn’t they be? They could still the final arbiter after asking the public for submissions.

      1. You’re welcome. One minor correction: my name is Laurel, not Lauren. Just think of Laurel and Hardy! 🙂 The IAU should definitely be open to suggestions and should welcome any attempts to engage the public with astronomy and find new funding sources for research.

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