I can only wonder what Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra would have thought of the idea that a distant star would one day be named for him. I wonder, too, what the Spanish novelist (1547-1616) would have made of the idea that planets circled other stars, and that planets around the star named for him would have names taken from his most famous work, Don Quixote. Maybe the great character of the book’s title, obsessed with tales of chivalry, would have been unhinged enough to take things like other solar systems in stride.
We have the NameExoWorlds contest to thank for these speculations. The contest, organized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) gave the public the opportunity to choose the names of selected stars and planets. The star named for Cervantes is mu Arae (HD 160691), a G-class star about fifty light years out in the constellation Ara (the Altar). Here we’ve found three gas giant planets comparable to Jupiter as well as a ‘super-Earth.’ And frankly, as a reader who agrees with Schopenhauer that Don Quixote is one of the world’s great novels, I am delighted with what the public has chosen, at least for this star.
Image: Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615), by the artist Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar (circa 1583-1641). Credit: Bridgeman Art Library.
For mu Arae b becomes Quijote, while mu Arae c is Dulcinea. The system is rounded out with Rocinante (mu Arae d) and Sancho (mu Arae e). Names as enchanting as these, with roots in classic literature, are likely to stick. When the voting finished at the end of October, the IAU had received 573,242 votes, which went toward naming 14 host stars and 31 exoplanets. Names were submitted from astronomy organizations in 45 countries, everything from amateur astronomy clubs to universities and planetariums, drawn from a wild variety of sources.
Take Thestias, the planet depicted in the image below. The grandfather of Pollux, Thestias orbits the star of the same name (Pollux, already named, needs no further designation). In Greek mythology, Pollux and Castor were twin brothers known as the Dioscuri who became transformed at death into the constellation Gemini. The winning name came from SkyNet, an astronomy project based at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth, Australia. The group, which includes over 200,000 volunteers globally, arrived at the submission by an internal vote, drawing on the idea of volunteer Rich Matthews.
Image: Artist’s impression of Thestias around its star Pollux. Credit: NASA/ESA and G. Bacon (STScI).
If mu Arae taps the late European Renaissance for its inspiration, 47 Ursae Majoris (46 light years out) draws on Thai folklore. The star receives the name Chalawan, while 47 Ursae Majoris b becomes Taphao Thong and 47 Ursae Majoris c is Taphao Kaew, these being two sisters in the story of a mythological crocodile king. The star upsilon Andromedae (an F-class star 44 light years away) becomes Titawin, a point of contact in Morocco between Spaniards and Arabs after the 8th Century. The planets upsilon Andromedae b, c and d become Saffar, Samh and Majriti, names drawn from astronomers and mathematicians notable in 11th Century Spain.
I think some of these names will last, but I’m not at all sure why the IAU chose to put out a call for new names for epsilon Eridani, at 10.5 light years one of the closest stars and a familiar name to generations of science fiction readers. I’m OK with giving epsilon Eridani b the name AEgir, which is drawn from Norse mythology (he was husband to Ran, the goddess of the sea), but changing the star epsilon Eridani to Ran is just not going to work, the original name being too widely circulated. It’s as odd as if we named the three Centauri stars anything other than their designation, the point being that by wide use, the designation and the name are one.
18 Delphini gets tagged Musica (lovely!), while its planet 18 Delphini b is now the wisely chosen Arion, a Greek musician whose tunes attracted the dolphins who saved him at sea. It’s also heartening to see the 55 Cancri planets named for great figures in astronomy including Galileo and Brahe, while the star itself becomes Copernicus. But is Poltergeist going to survive as the name of one of the pulsar planets (PSR 1257+12 c)? How about Spe for 14 Andromedae b?
My cavils aside, I love the idea of pulling the public into the naming of planets because we live in a world undergoing an unprecedented expansion of consciousness skyward. The great voyages of discovery have nothing on what we are doing now, pushing away from Sol to find planets at ever smaller and more Earth-like scale as we begin, in the tiniest way, the process of mapping the planetary systems of a galaxy of 200 billion stars. Ultimately, naming exoplanets will by necessity become an ad hoc process, to be resorted to as needed, because the number of planets will dwarf our lexicons. But we’re still getting used to that idea, and the NameExoWorlds contest has been a delightful way to bring visibility to the question.