April 12, 2013 | 16
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.