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Naming Names in the Cosmos

How objects in the sky get named is always interesting to me. You may recall that the discovery of Uranus prompted some interesting naming activity. John Flamsteed, the English astronomer who was the first Astronomer Royal, observed the planet in 1690 and catalogued it as 34 Tauri, thinking it a star, as did French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier when he observed it in the mid-18th Century. William Herschel, seeing Uranus in 1781, thought at first that it was a comet, and reported it as such to the Royal Society.

98,Sir William Herschel,by Lemuel Francis Abbott

By 1783, thanks to the work of the Russian astronomer Anders Lexell and Berlin-based Johann Elert Bode, Herschel came to agree that the new object was indeed a planet. Herschel, asked by then Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne to name the new world, declared it to be Georgium Sidus, the ‘Georgian Planet,’ a name honoring King George III. The unpopular name soon met with alternative suggestions, including Herschel, Neptune and (Bode’s own idea) Uranus.

Image: Sir William Herschel (1738-1822), whose idea about naming a new planet met with scant approval. Credit: Lemuel Francis Abbott – National Portrait Gallery.

Herschel had worried that naming planets after the ‘ principal heroes and divinities’ of ancient eras would be out of place in his time, suggesting that naming them after the era they were discovered (hence, the reign of George III) would be the more satisfactory method. But of course we haven’t followed the suggestion, and now look not only for the names of ancient beings both human and divine as well as names related to specific cultures. The geography of Ceres, for example is to be named after mythology associated with agriculture and vegetation, a nod to Giuseppe Piazzi, its discoverer, who knew Ceres as the Roman goddess of agriculture.

The problem with all this is that we’re making so many discoveries that we’re taxing our ability to come up with the best nomenclature. Some 24 craters on Saturn’s moon Phoebe have been named by classical reference to the Argonauts, the intrepid adventurers who sailed with Jason to find the Golden Fleece. But the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature also notes that future craters on Phoebe may have names associated with the goddess, who was, according to ancient lore, a Titan, the daughter of Uranus and Gaea. As mapping continues, features other than craters may acquire names based on Appollonius Rhodius’ 3rd C. text The Argonautica.

Titan, much in our thoughts with the 10th anniversary of the landing of the Huygens probe, gets plenty of attention from the International Astronomical Union, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA, all of whom have a hand in determining the names of features. Craters on the Saturnian moon take the names of gods and goddesses of wisdom, while a variety of surface features are open to names drawn from characters from Tolkien’s Middle Earth, characters from the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov and the names of planets from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, surely a nod to science fictional interests among researchers.

And let’s not forget Xanadu, a plateau-like, highly reflective region on Titan, a name deriving ultimately from the Yuan Dynasty’s summer capital as established by Kublai Khan and immortalized in the West by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Interesting places, these new worlds, and full of so many features that need names! When Makemake was discovered soon after Easter in 2005, it was immediately nicknamed Easterbunny, but later yielded to an IAU-sanctioned monicker based on fertility mythology on Rapa Nui, which most of us know as Easter Island.

I could go on with this entertaining subject indefinitely, even sticking within our own Solar System. The Uranian satellite Miranda, for instance, draws feature names from characters in Shakespeare’s plays, as do all the major moons of Uranus, though small satellites can draw on names from the poetry of Alexander Pope. We’ll doubtless have plenty of suggestions for features on Pluto once New Horizons gets close enough to see them. The theme there will be underworld deities. New moons like Nyx and Hydra have already received names according to this convention.

What happens when we turn to exoplanets? With so many being discovered, it’s no surprise that the International Astronomical Union has organized a global contest to name selected exoplanets. The NameExoWorlds contest is already open, with a first round that will allow nominations for ExoWorlds (by this, the IAU means the entire exoplanetary system and its host star) to be made available for the next stage of the contest, where names can be proposed.

Artist’s impression of an exoplanet

Image: An artist’s impression of Alpha Centauri Bb. How many place names will we eventually have to come up with for places like this? Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger.

The IAU, which goes about assigning scientifically recognized names to newly discovered objects, says that the NameExoWorlds contest will be the first opportunity for the public to name both exoplanets and the stars around which they orbit. To participate, clubs and non-profit organizations have to register with the IAU Directory of World Astronomy by May 15, 2015. The deadline for the first stage of the contest is February 15, 2015, when the nominating process for the first 20 ExoWorlds is to close. After that, each club or organization will be allowed to submit names, with a later worldwide public vote that will presumably take place over the Internet.

If you’d like to get involved, this IAU news release has all the details. News of the contest had me thinking about new categories for names, and I immediately thought about drawing ideas from Arthurian romances of the Middle Ages. But alas, I learn from the Gazetter of Planetary Nomenclature that this one has already been taken, on Mimas, of all places, where craters are to be named after people from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Malory scooped up most of the major characters in earlier English and French Arthurian tales, but maybe there are a few he missed. It’s worth a look, because as we keep discovering new worlds, names are going to be in short supply.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • RobFlores January 15, 2015, 13:11

    The way thing are going we may forced by the Powers that Be
    to use names that don’t offend or suppress ( aggrieved group goes here)

    I don’t object to using names from non-western mythologies. I do object to
    using inane names that have the charisma of tupperware. How about planets being called Opportunity, Curiosity, you like them apples?

    As a matter of convention, Gas giants should be male, Terrestrials
    should be female. So what should we name the eventual world that
    is closest Earth Twin? My Nomination: Hypatia (it’s the least we can do for her)

  • andy January 15, 2015, 13:26

    Personally I don’t think any of the exoplanets need names right now, and that doing so at the current time is premature. Case in point, they list the stellar activity signal “GJ 581 d” as a “well-characterised exoplanet”. Still others may turn out to be stars or brown dwarfs in face-on orbits, thanks to the mass/inclination degeneracy of the radial velocity method. The designation carries the suggestion of remoteness and unfamiliarity in a way that a name cannot.

    I’m also not a fan of the way they’ve abdicated the responsibility for making their contest accessible to non-English speakers to Google Translate, especially given the tendency for machine translation to produce less than ideal results. This also likely makes it less “findable” for people who’s primary language is not English. Does a supposedly international organisation really not have the ability to translate things properly?

  • rm lindsey January 15, 2015, 18:28

    how about using descriptive names? A hot Jupiter, or maybe more appropriately an extremely hot tidally locked terrestrial, could be called Scorch. I also like the idea of names from more contemporary culture,–an earth like planet with oceans and ample water precipitation might be named “BoxOfRain,” for example.

    Or, perhaps we could raise money for our interstellar ambitions by transferring naming authority to an affiliated organization and selling the right to name a planet after oneself or a corporation. The planet “Google,” and its moon, “Beyoncé,” might raise some cash.

  • Anthony Mugan January 16, 2015, 9:01

    Whilst I probably would agree that trying to name exoplanets seems both a bit premature…and there are already so many that it may well become a hopeless task…if they do want to try, and sticking with ancient mythologies, how about drawing from some of those cultures that have beings from other worlds in their creation myths.
    Possibilities include the Sumerian Oannes and a multitude of related characters. The Chinese Fuxi may be a similar character.

    On another theme some of the Celtic myths are quite other-wordly or perhaps Odin with his charriot race through the sky as part of the Norse Yule festival ( although I don’t think it was pulled by a red nosed reindeer!)

  • Harry R Ray January 16, 2015, 10:46

    Yesterday, the Keoler mission (NOT K2) released its “final report” for ALL SEVENTEEN QUARTERS of the primary mission. The FINAL TOTAL is 20,367 potential transiting events, but most importantly, a WHOPPING 7,698 potential ADDITIONAL MULTIPLE PLANETARY SYSTEMS! This is VERY IMPORTANT, due to the “validation by multiplicity technique! After an initial investigation of the potential STABILITY of all the new MULTIPLE candidates, I expect this number to drop to about 6,000. Then, after searching for stellar companions around every new candidate star, the true multiplicity of an additional 1,ooo of these systems will come into question, leaving 5,000 systems that CAN be validated by the above technique. The final tally of JUST THE MULTIPLE SYSTEMS (now and future combined will be WELL IN EXCESS of 10,000! WOW! This exceed by several magnatudes the EXPECTED number of VALIDATED( CAUTION: VALIDATION is only a THREE SIGMA detection! Therefore, MORE THAN TEN OF THESE PLANETS WILL ACTUALLY NOT EXIST!) planets EXPECTED at the sart of the mission. Due to GAIA’s light contamination problem, Kepler’s total will MOST LIKELY EXCEED GAIA’s. That’s a whole lot of names needed!

  • Al Jackson January 16, 2015, 11:04

    Just like the pulsar planets that did not get named:
    Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.
    Other triples could be
    Huey, Dewey, and Louie
    or
    Larry , Curly and Moe (tho Shemp was the funniest stooge!).
    Better quit while I’m ahead. :)

  • ljk January 16, 2015, 11:27

    I think we should follow the Borg method and just number everything. Efficient and will not offend. Plus if there are hundreds of billions of planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone, we will quickly run out of names.

    I remember when the Mars Pathfinder team was naming the rocks surrounding the lander and Sojourner rover, the media was either chastising them for boring names and then chiding the team if they got cute with the nomenclature. Cannot win when it comes to the fickle media.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rocks_on_Mars

    I would like it if we had no more space probe/rover names with “cutesy” and politically correct labels like Spirit, etc. Missions should be named after people who made important contributions to our understanding of the target world, or at least related to astronomy and space. Kepler yes, Curiosity no.

  • ljk January 16, 2015, 11:52

    In the twelfth episode of the original Cosmos series, Carl Sagan presented the Encyclopedia Galactica which cataloged all the imagined worlds of the Milky Way galaxy using numbers. It is presented towards the end of the episode here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4CkXerRDps

  • Thomas January 16, 2015, 11:57

    My problem with giving proper names to exoplanets is that the current system of giving them catalog and/or survey names provides a lot more information. For example, just from the name I can guess that HAT-P-3 was discovered by the HAT survey, early in HAT’s survey time (so, ~2007?), and is a giant planet. Similarly, Kepler-78 indicates a smaller planet, around a fainter star, discoverd later than HAT-P-3 (and probably towards the end of the Kepler mission). If you know the general make-up of the main star catalogs, you can play this same game for the HD and GJ planets (and those give you a rough position too).

  • RobFlores January 16, 2015, 13:59

    I think we will maintain the Mission craft/Project name Plus Numerical
    assignation for new planets that are not Earth Like. But I doubt we will
    do the same for any near Earth Twins we find. If names of individuals
    offend, it is always possible to use inspiring names that gives the
    planet a patina of charisma: Just don’t ask NASA to name them

  • Michael January 16, 2015, 16:01

    Maybe we should leave the naming of the planets to the people/cyborgs who will one day reach them.

  • Erik Landahl January 17, 2015, 19:10

    Michael: Would Von Neumann probes name the planets they reach?

  • LocalFluff January 17, 2015, 20:18

    Uranus is the king in this category. Why is there a dirty greek among all the other latin planets? Uranus is a greek name, and it happens to be a bit uncomfortable in English today. If the IAU wants to redefine planets, then they should rename Uranus: Celestis.

    As far as I know, no exoplanet has been found. It has not been established that any of the candidates have cleared their orbits, so they might all be exodwarfplanets. According to the clear and great definitions of the IAU, thank you very much for that!

  • Rm lindsey January 17, 2015, 21:30

    We should use the name that the natives use

  • Windfire January 18, 2015, 5:30

    Plenty of great names are available from Native American lore. Considering much of this research is done in the Americas why not use indigenous names? This would be a great way of public outreach between the astronomy community and indigenous communities. Tribal councils could nominate names, etc.

  • Rob Henry January 18, 2015, 15:30

    Naming exoplanets can only lead to even more confusion. Wouldn’t it be far more sensible to name ONLY the star in a multiplanet system, and have secondary identifiers for planets. At least then in you are giving a presentation comparing eight planets from five different systems, it would be much easier to follow.

  • andy January 18, 2015, 18:37

    they should rename Uranus: Celestis.

    If you’re going for the Roman equivalent of Οὐρανός, Caelus might be a better fit. But let’s not cast aspersions on the Greeks, for starters they didn’t introduce the nomenclatural inconsistency. Anyway, Uranus is a far better name than “Georgium Sidus”, which would have been terrible.

    Besides, if you’re claiming that “Uranus” is messing up the nomenclature, consider that there’s a planet called “Earth” in the list….

  • ljk January 19, 2015, 9:32

    Earth should be called Tellus, though we can barely get the masses to call it Terra:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_(mythology)

    And the Moon should be called Luna and the Sun Sol.

  • BRS January 19, 2015, 16:09

    The immense number of objects that could be given names is no real obstacle. Astronomy is not special in this regard: we give names to things or withhold them based on relevance. I would think the primary criterion for relevance of an astronomical object is its proximity, perhaps with some allowance for naming more distant but still very influential objects like the brightest stars (many of which already have names) or, say, Sagittarius A*.

    It would not be unreasonable to name all objects within 25 parsecs large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium. Cues for appropriate names could be taken from constellations (modern Western constellations, but also others) in which the objects reside.

    WISE 0855−0714 (yes, I had to look it up even though I’m a big fan of brown dwarfs) is a good example of an object that needs a more memorable designation.

  • Mark Zambelli January 21, 2015, 7:10

    @Erik Landahl
    “Michael: Would Von Neumann probes name the planets they reach?”

    Maybe their names wouldn’t be any better… “Our unit has just arrived from ‘100110100110’ and once we’ve re-fuelled at ‘10011100001101’ then we’re heading off to check-out the lovely ‘1110110010110’ ” ;)

    The mention of Uranus brings to mind the glut of embarrassed media-types who were reporting back in ’86 re Voyager’s flyby. Spitting Image (UK satirical puppet sketch-show) summed it up wonderfully…
    Alastair Burnet -: http://youtu.be/pHp9Cakv2Fg

    If I had my choice I’d be prone to choose characters/places from the SF novels of Iain M Banks (alhough maybe not the ship names(?)).

  • Sean M. Brooks January 22, 2015, 4:39

    I would point out that the works of Poul Anderson would and should be a rich source of names for both locations within the Solar System and for exo planets. And Poul Anderson DID use “Terra” for Earth and “Sol” for our Sun in his Technic History series.

    Plus, of course, Poul Anderson was one of the inspirations for the founding of Centauri Dreams.

  • Alex Volta June 29, 2015, 17:23

    What’s wrong with made up names? Kastaria is just as interesting a name as Celestia for example. While Celestia has a meaning and roots in Earth’s languages the former doesn’t, but is that bad?

    With more freedom in naming planetary objects we would worry less about running out of more common type of names based on mythologies. Another way to name planets is using planets from literature or pop-culture (movies, TV-shows, video games), there’s a lot to choose from.

    My suggestion would be to name firstly planets that are:

    – Confirmed they exist;
    – Are in the star’s HZ;
    – Confirmed they are habitable;
    – Are the closest to Sol;

    Leaving the rest with alpha-numerical designations for ease, until their turn comes. This way we’d get planets we’d be more interested in named, and since these would be planets of great interest and importance that we’d consider exploring/colonizing, having them and their system named would serve us well.