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Naming New Worlds

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.

220px-Cervates_jauregui

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.

Pollux

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.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley December 16, 2015, 13:55

    The winners were all European names. Were names from other regions e.g. India and China at least submitted?

    Traditionally lands have been named by those physically landing on them. Will future star travelers have to accept these names, or will they have the right to officially rename them on landfall?

  • Athena Andreadis December 16, 2015, 14:09

    The name was Théstios (latinized Thestius). Thestiás is a patronymic for daughters of that family like Lédha, who has several different fathers — and hence Dióskouroi grandfathers — attributed to her.

    Given the obscurity of this particular name it’s interesting that no system has yet been named after the original Atreides family whose tragic saga is widely known (to say nothing of the mythic mishmash of the Dune Atreides, a staple read among space enthusiasts).

  • Michael December 16, 2015, 15:12

    I can’t wait until they release the first batch of data from Gaia around mid 2016. They won’t be enough names on Earth to name them all, we may have to give them binary number names.

    ‘By now, Gaia has accumulated about 340 billion positional or astrometric measurements, 68 billion brightness or photometric data points, and 6.7 billion spectra.’

    http://sci.esa.int/gaia/56838-gaia-data-processing-consortium-meets-ahead-of-first-catalogue-release-next-year/

  • Marc Millis December 16, 2015, 16:31

    My opinion is that the first Earth-like planet should be named “Destiny.”

    And on a more humorous note, at least one planet should be named “Mine, all mine.”

  • Tom Mazanec December 16, 2015, 16:43

    Here is a view from 2009:
    http://arxiv.org/pdf/0910.3989v3.pdf

  • Paul Gilster December 16, 2015, 16:48

    Alex Tolley writes:

    The winners were all European names. Were names from other regions e.g. India and China at least submitted?

    The full list is here:

    http://nameexoworlds.iau.org/names

    I did see Japanese, Arabic, Thai and Aztec names among the winners.

  • Coacervate December 16, 2015, 19:16

    Epsilon Eridani

    like a little poem

  • Enzo December 17, 2015, 0:45

    Personally I found this a bit premature : the number of meaningful, interesting names is smaller than the number of worlds out there. I feel that we are “using up” good names for the first worlds found rather than the most interesting or significant for humanity. I prefer names like PSR 1257+12 c or similar until a much larger sample and/or knowledge of planets is accumulated.
    In the end , it doesn’t really matter though : there will be dull planets with cool names and vice-versa, just like for places on Earth.

  • Mark Zambelli December 17, 2015, 7:05

    There are so many fictional planets that have been named in books etc. that it’s hard to be original. Niven was good at naming (my fave is still ‘We Made It!’) although Alf’s home planet ‘Melmac’ is high on the list. Does a name have to be ‘serious’ so as not to be dismissed as frivolous? but then humans have a sense of humour so maybe some of the ‘silly-er’ names should be offered to keep some balance and colour so the catalogs don’t become too ‘dry’ for future colonists to read.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_planets_by_medium

  • Michael Spencer December 17, 2015, 8:08

    “Cavils”, Paul? Thanks :-)

  • ljk December 17, 2015, 9:30

    Most stars already have multiple names due to multiple cataloging efforts, so what’s one more?

    https://www.naic.edu/~gibson/starnames/

  • Mark Zambelli December 17, 2015, 11:44

    I’ve often noticed the naming conventions the IAU uses so was interested to see the alterations made to some of the winning names in the footnotes on the official table (thanks Paul for the link).

    Quijote stumped me though for a while as I had wrongly assumed the spelling was changed from an ‘x’ due to the asteroid 3552 Don Quixote already having that moniker. I’ve never studied Spanish (just German, French and some Latin) so I was pleasantly surprised to see Quijote is the original Spanish spelling so no need to mess with that name. Lovely. If it has high winds then it would be the perfect place to find more Windmills than you can shake a sword at! Ha.

    Oh and I’m glad the pulsar and its planets finally get names… they’ve always fascinated me for several reasons… they were kinda the first exoplanets found, how they formed and, thanks to the sci-fi artist in me, what their local, lethal environment must be like (I’ve spent many an hour trying to visualize there, touring the system while daydreaming). So I think I rather like their official names although I don’t think everyone will.

  • Mark Zambelli December 17, 2015, 12:20

    My two young children reminded me that they know of ‘The Lich’ already and they think it’s a perfect name for a dead star that has such a strong control of it’s three worlds… kids tv, eh, (I actually kind like this show too, how embarassing)

    http://adventuretime.wikia.com/wiki/The_Lich_(character)

  • Jim Galasyn December 17, 2015, 21:20

    If planets are discovered around 40 Eridani A, the second one must be named “Vulcan”.

    http://memory-beta.wikia.com/wiki/Vulcan_(planet)

  • Eniac December 20, 2015, 1:54

    Mark Zambelli:

    I’ve never studied Spanish (just German, French and some Latin) so I was pleasantly surprised to see Quijote is the original Spanish spelling so no need to mess with that name. Lovely.

    Actually, I believe the spelling “Don Quixote” is the original one, deriving from the Old Castilian language spoken by Don Quixote in the novel. I suppose it is the Spanish equivalent of Old English (“Thou shalt not ….”). Don Quijote must be a modernized spelling. The ‘x’ instead of the ‘j’ is also still found in modern Catalan.

  • J. Jason Wentworth December 20, 2015, 4:47

    The names of extrasolar planets need not be permanent, officially-recognized names; they could be “working names,” just as many un-named lunar features in and around the Apollo landing sites were given appealing and even whimsical unofficial names for mnemonic and morale reasons (they made the Moon less emotionally stark to the Apollo 10 crew and subsequent crews, in contrast to the emotionally rather alienated feelings that the Apollo 8 crew had toward the Moon). Also:

    Many years ago, an unlikely but possible scenario occurred to me, one that would be a “sucker punch” to human ego:

    In the future, a human-crewed starship visits an inhabited planet that is close enough that our Sun is visible in its sky. Via either a face-to-face meeting or (if local micro-organisms are a concern) a real-time video link, the crew makes contact with the reasonably humanoid inhabitants. After mutual linguistic understanding is established, astronomical and historical/cultural subjects (among many others, of course) are discussed. When asked about their constellations and sky lore, the locals–with evident slight mirth–are reluctant to talk about our Sun…because to them, our star marks an embarrassing part of the anatomy of some loathsome creature’s constellation… :-)

  • Mark Zambelli December 21, 2015, 13:24

    @Eniac

    Thankyou for that… I’ve trawled a heap more after your reply and, unsurprisingly, found that the history of Spanish is a lot more involved than I was aware. Good to know, thanks.

  • Stevo Darkly December 22, 2015, 0:55

    In Ken MacLeod’s science fiction novel Newton’s Wake, there appears a very uninhabitable planet that orbits a pulsar and gets lashed by the pulsar’s radiation beam every two seconds or so. That planet’s name is Chernobyl.

    (The pulsar itself is not identified in the book. All we know is that it’s not PSR 1257+12 c, because that one is specifically mentioned as “another pulsar … the one in Virgo.”)

    Names like Lich and Poltergeist aren’t bad, either. They’re nice and atmospheric/moody.

    However, I do feel a little bit like naming these exoplanets right now is rather premature. We don’t know much about them yet; they may well have distinctive characteristics, still to be discovered, that will suggest more obvious and memorable names to future generations.

    Of course, there’s not much to keep us from renaming these planets after we learn more about them.

  • ljk January 11, 2016, 14:11

    Professional astronomers are not too keen on these new names:

    http://www.manyworlds.space/index.php/2016/01/04/mostly-thumbs-down-on-exonames/