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Planet Naming Rights Not for Sale, Says International Astronomical Union

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Artist's conception of Alpha Centauri B b. Credit: Caption: Artist's impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO/L. Calcada Astronomy has a branding problem. It’s an incredibly exciting time for the field, as astronomers are turning up planets orbiting distant stars by the cosmic boatload. But the planets themselves carry dreary names that only a bureaucrat could love. Even the most-studied, best-known planets have names like 51 Pegasi b, HD 209458 b and Alpha Centauri B b, all of which sound downright lyrical next to exoplanet monikers such as OGLE-2006-BLG-109L c.

So it makes sense that various individuals and organizations have tried to spruce things up. The planet 51 Pegasi b, the first world discovered orbiting a normal star, is sometimes (but rarely) referred to as Bellerophon. In 2010 astronomer Steven Vogt honored his wife with the discovery of Gliese 581 g, aka Zarmina’s World. (As it turns out, that planet may not exist.)

The International Astronomical Union, which sets official astronomical nomenclature, has seemingly tolerated these harmless and mostly ineffective naming efforts. (The IAU is best known, perhaps, for re-classifying Pluto as a dwarf planet in 2006.) But the sale of naming rights apparently crosses a line. The IAU issued the following statement April 12:

In the light of recent events, where the possibility of buying the rights to name exoplanets has been advertised, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) wishes to inform the public that such schemes have no bearing on the official naming process….

Recently, an organization has invited the public to purchase both nomination proposals for exoplanets, and rights to vote for the suggested names. In return, the purchaser receives a certificate commemorating the validity and credibility of the nomination. Such certificates are misleading, as these campaigns have no bearing on the official naming process—they will not lead to an officially-recognized exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued.

An IAU spokesperson clarified that the statement was directed at Uwingu, a science-funding organization leading a naming campaign for Alpha Centauri B b, the nearest known exoplanet. For $4.99 entrants can propose a name for the planet, and for 99 cents participants can vote for a name already suggested. As of April 12 the leading vote-getter was Rakhat, with 556 votes.

Rakhat is the name of a planet inhabited by an extraterrestrial species in Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow (Villard Books). Fans of that book may be disappointed to hear that their votes will not affect the official name of Alpha Centauri B b, but at least their favorite fictional world has been recognized elsewhere. An asteroid discovered almost 20 years ago, first known as 1994 JG9, was in 2002 officially designated 12374 Rakhat.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. frankblank 5:58 pm 04/12/2013

    OMG!!!!! Do you mean to say that there is something that will not be commodified? Such news is indeed hard to bear.

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  2. 2. Simon Says 8:02 pm 04/12/2013

    Ever since the idiots at IAU reclassified Pluto, they lost my respect. Screw the SOB’s, we don’t need them. If you discover a planet you can name it what you want and you can ask others to submit names as well. Everything on earth is named by it’s discoverer. Time for those children at IAU to grow up. Also, PLUTO IS a planet, I just wonder if IAU members are humans or Neanderthals, can I judge?

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  3. 3. leaf6 11:20 pm 04/12/2013

    Names. They really aren’t anything but labels. For the Romans there is Jupiter or Jove, and for the Greeks there is Zeus. The difference between what IAU decides for a name and what any individual decides is the difference between a birth certificate name and a popular nickname. If the nickname (Mark Twain) is popular enough, it will outlast the real name (Samuel Clemens).

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  4. 4. Polynumeral 11:54 pm 04/12/2013

    To name the planets and have them recognized officially by the community, if not the IAU then whom? sure the discover can name but it still needs to be ratified and accepted by the community and maintained somewhere.

    I am sure that at near $5 a suggestion and near $1 a vote for a name which is essentially $1 to give a thumbs up that anyone who has a website and can whip up a quick database would like to claim authority on naming rights at those prices. (anyone here want to make a quick buck?). Especially as the list of planets is constantly growing. A good nomenclature system is always better than a haphazard one in my belief.

    To Simon Says

    A dwarf is a dwarf is a dwarf. I’m not much into political correctness where Pluto may be considered gravitational or radius challenged.People have feelings but i don’t think Pluto will mind too much if we just call it as it is.

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  5. 5. geojellyroll 4:17 pm 04/13/2013

    Much ado about nothing.

    Anybody can call any planet, star, etc. whatever they want to. It just won’t be recognized by some association that has no power beyond itself. ML Baseball might call a knuckle ball a ‘knuckle ball’ but I can still call it a ‘shpink’. I could make a baseball brand under the name ‘shpink’. A company doesn’t need permission to call an extra terredtrial object wants to. Nobody has some special legal jurisdiction.

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  6. 6. mholmes 3:08 pm 04/18/2013

    Polynumeral: I don’t think it’s emotion that makes the controversy over Pluto’s classification a continuing source of controversy–well, maybe it is: continuing disappointment that the IAU, which is supposed to be a scientific organization, is clinging to a concept so illogical that even laypeople find it absurd and unacceptable.

    As for selling the right to vote on names for exoplanets, it’s easier for the public to care about those (and maybe other astronomical subjects as well) when the exoplanets have proper names rather than what we’ve got now. We can call Alpha Centauri B b that, or if it turns out to be the innermost planet of the star, Alpha Centauri B 1, but a proper name will be easier to identify with, like Eros, as opposed to just minor planet 433. There’s a need here, a leadership vacuum the IAU has created that another entity is stepping into, and yes, there should be some sort of official order imposed upon this situation. But if the IAU doesn’t do it, someone else will. I don’t see any harm in consulting with the public on planet, minor planet, or exoplanet naming rights.

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  7. 7. Prairie Dog 9:30 am 04/19/2013

    The problem with Pluto’s status is twofold. One, the IAU couldn’t decide exactly how to define planet, not surprising when you get so many opinionated humans together. Eventually the IAU probably got tired of arguing and settled on what it considered the best of a bad lot of classifications.

    Second, people have an emotional attachment to what they learned years or decades ago. “‘Twas always thus and so ’twill ever be.” You want to cling to Pluto as a “real planet”? fine, but don’t get so upset over the IAU’s classification. It’s not a personal insult. Get over it.

    Selling exoplanet names: apparently another emotional issue. Right now only bodies connected with the Solar System have official names. (Real question: are star names official? I believe not.) We commonly name deep sky objects, and people accept the names, but they aren’t sold or IAU official. The same may happen with exoplanets.

    There’s no reason to get emotional over an IAU press release that simply said the name sale and voting was unofficial. You still want to buy a name? Vote on a name? Go for it. Maybe the name(s) will even catch on.

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  8. 8. mholmes 10:08 am 04/19/2013

    So, disagreeing with you is being “emotional”? No, we’re not going to “get over it” regarding Pluto’s status. This is bad science and we intend to have it corrected. As for this exoplanet naming thing, as I believe I said, there is the potential for chaos, but the IAU can deal with that by simply working with these outside entities on this issue.

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  9. 9. bucketofsquid 5:18 pm 04/19/2013

    So how many countries have ratified laws or treaties on the legitimacy of the IAU? As far as I can find the number is 0. This makes the IAU a professional organization rather than a governmental entity. As such it can define how it refers to things and suggest that others do so as well. What neither it nor the planet name sellers can do is legally name a planet or any astronomical entity. As far as I can tell the IAU assigns convenient working names and the naming rights sellers sell nicknames. No one is creating legal names. That will have to wait until we colonize or make contact with the particular astronomical thing or in the case of planets, possible sentient life, if any.

    I humbly suggest that the nickname for the theoretical black hole at the center of the Milkyway galaxy should be Foop because that is the sound my vacuum cleaner made sucking up a balloon.

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  10. 10. iWind 3:56 am 04/20/2013

    The question is not whether you can call a planet anything you like. You can, and you don’t have to pay for it. Just don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re referring to. You can even make a certificate stating that you have named a planet the same as your great grandfather’s dog or whatever you like, and you don’t have to pay for that either.

    The point, and the thing that the IAU need to distance themselves from, is that Uwingu (and others) claim to have the authority to make whatever name you pay for the officially recognized name of a planet (or in other cases stars and such).

    From the website:

    “Whatever it is, as long as its not profane, pejorative, or otherwise offensive, it could be the future name of a planet.

    But, only if you Uwingu!”

    Despite the weird grammar, I find their claim quite clear that this is the only way to get your chosen name recognized as the name of a planet.

    In other words they’re making people pay for a service which they can’t provide, and the IAU is simply making it clear, that they will not recognize these names, and that you can not complain to them, if the name you paid for is not used.

    Whether you want to call the IAU names “official” or “just another set of names from some random organization,” is entirely up to you, but since approximately 99.9% of the talk about these planets is done by astrophysicists and related scientists who do pay heed to the IAU, your opinion is not likely to have more of an impact than if a group of online gamers cast a vote on what to name pieces of farm equipment.

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  11. 11. maddog34 8:55 pm 04/20/2013

    I think we should rename the IAU and call it the Amalgamated Sphinkter Suckers, Equally Snobby. A.S.S.E.S. This seems more in line with their recent behaviour patterns.

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  12. 12. mholmes 4:03 pm 04/23/2013

    iWind: Looks to me like Uwingu has set themselves up as a forum that gathers input from the public on exoplanet naming, and you’re paying them for the right to vote on a name, not for a name. Of course, other sites in competition with Uwingu can conceivably do the same, and maybe yield different naming suggestions for the same planet, and the aggregate data these sites collect (the votes for a name) will only mean so much without an official stamp of approval of some sort.

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  13. 13. mholmes 4:06 pm 04/23/2013

    maddog34: LOL That’s pretty good.

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  14. 14. Quinn the Eskimo 8:49 pm 05/12/2013

    I suggest we nominate the U.S. Congress to create exoplanet names! Why not? It’s not like they’re busy doing anything else.

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  15. 15. Dileep Sathe 9:24 am 08/20/2013

    I suggest that “retrograde” planet / exoplanet be named as “Sathe Planet”. My interest in the retrograde planet / exoplanet is because of my research in conceptual physics – focused on the retrograde motion and I have pointed out a conceptual trouble in it. Actually, physicists should have noticed that trouble 100 years ago – read my Letter to the Editor of Physics Education / U.K. / January 2012 / p. 132. Or contact me on dvsathe@gmail.com

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  16. 16. Plutosavior 4:17 pm 08/25/2013

    A dwarf planet is still a planet, just like a dwarf star is still a star, and a dwarf galaxy is still a galaxy. The claim by the IAU that a dwarf planet is something other than a type of planet makes absolutely no sense. Dr. Alan Stern is the person who first coined the term “dwarf planet,” but he intended it to refer to a third class of planets in addition to terrestrials and jovians, not to non-planets. The IAU continues to undermine its credibility by refusing to fix its mistake and reopen the planet definition discussion. How can a scientific organization justify making a one time decision that will never be revisited? They were supposed to address the issue of exoplanets in order to have a single definition for both our solar system and others, yet this was never done. Comparing Uwingu to a scam because they feel threatened is very unprofessional on the part of the IAU. Uwingu is trying to raise money for astronomy research and space travel in an era when governments are repeatedly slashing this funding. Everyone who participates in nominating or voting for a name understands the goals to which their money is going.

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