Four years ago, the International Astronomical Union organized a competition to give popular names to 14 stars and 31 exoplanets that orbit them. The event encouraged 570,000 people to vote and the iconic planet 51 Pegasi b became “Dimidium, ” 55 Cancri b became “Galileo,” and (among others) Formalhaut b became “Dagon.”
It remains unclear how often those popular names are used in either scientific papers or writing about the papers. But the idea of giving mythical names, names that describe something unique about the planet (or star) or that nod to famous astronomer or iconic writers has caught on and the IAU has a new naming contest up and running.
This one is the IAU NameExoWorlds global campaign, and almost 100 nations have signed up to organize public national campaigns that will give new names to a selected exoplanet and its host star.
“This exciting event invites everyone worldwide to think about their collective place in the universe, while stimulating creativity and global citizenship,” shared Debra Elmegreen, IAU President Elect. “The NameExoWorlds initiative reminds us that we are all together under one sky.”
From a large sample of well-studied, confirmed exoplanets and their host stars, the IAU NameExoWorlds Steering Committee assigned a star-planet system to each country, taking into account associations with the country and the visibility of the host star from most of the country.
The national campaigns will be carried out from June to November 2019 and, after final validation by that NameExoWorlds Steering Committee, the global results will be announced in December 2019. The winning names will be used freely in parallel with the existing technical scientific names.
The naming contest flows from the well-established fact that exoplanets are everywhere — at least one around most stars, scientists have concluded. Some 4,500 exoplanets have been identified so far, but this is but the beginning. Astronomers are confident there are hundreds of billions of exoplanets — ranging from small and rocky like Earth to massive gas giants much larger than Jupiter — in our galaxy reaches into the many billions.
Thus far, the known exoplanets remain largely in the realm of technical space science. The NameExoWorlds campaign is an effort to make some of the exoplanets (and their host stars) part of a broader public discussion. Maybe not on a par with Jupiter or Mercury or that IAU downgraded “dwarf planet” Pluto, but more familiar than WASP21 b or HD 86081 b or HAT-P-3 b. (The “b” or “c” ore “d” after the scientific description of the star describes a planet and how close to the host star it orbits, with “b” the closest._
The contest is being held now as part of the 100th anniversary of the IAU, an international association of professional astronomers, at the PhD level and beyond, active in professional research and education in astronomy.
Among other activities, the IAU acts as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations and names to celestial bodies (stars, planets, asteroids) and any surface features on them. Getting the public involved in some of the non-scientific naming was a central goal of the initial exo-worlds naming contest, the 2015 campaign to rename a relative handful of exoplanets and host stars.
Within the framework of the IAU100 NameExoWorlds project
Here is the list of stars and exoplanets, with their constellation and locations, assigned to participating nations: http://www.nameexoworlds.iau.org/list-of-stars
In each participating country, a team of National Outreach Coordinators (IAU NOCs) has been create to carry out the campaign at the national level. The national committee, following the methodology (http://nameexoworlds.iau.org/
In the earlier 2015 naming contest, these are some of the winners.
From Spain, all in the Mu Area system: Cervantes, Quijote, Dulcinea, Rocinante, Sancho
From the United States: Ran, AEgir and Dagon
From Thailand: Taphao and Thong
From Italy: Draugr, Poltergeist and Phobetor.
From Japan: Amateru, Arion, Arkas and Fortitudo
From the Netherland, all in th 55 Cancri system: Galileo, Brahe, Lippershey, Janssen and Harriot
In nations that have not organized a national campaign, science organization and Non-Governmental Organization interested in carrying out a nation-wide contest, have until 30 July 2019 to express interest to (http://nameexoworlds.iau.org/
The planets in our solar system were named as they were discovered, mostly after Roman gods. Uranus (a Greek god) and Earth (derived from the English/German word “ertha” for “ground”) are the exceptions.
With so many billions of exoplanets, a different naming protocol was clearly needed. But the aim is pretty much the same: To make distant celestial bodies a more identifiable and intimate part of our human world.
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.