Contests to name moons and exoplanets irk International Astronomical Union

Apr 25, 2013 by Bob Yirka report
A best-fit color image/map of Pluto generated with the Hubble Space Telescope and advanced computers. Image: NASA

(Phys.org) —Two recent contests—one run by the SETI researchers that made the two most recent Pluto moon discoveries and another by an independent group called Uwingu to name an exoplanet—have caused the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to issue a statement labeling such contests misleading since the winning names chosen by the organizing bodies have no official recognition.

Here on Earth there is just one body that is officially recognized as the gate-keeper for naming stars, planets, moons and anything else that exists out in space—the IAU. But that hasn't stopped other people or organizations from making up names on their own, or from having contests to name whatever they like.

Recently, Mark Showalter, a research scientist with the and co-discoverer of two new moons circling the ex-planet Pluto ran a to give them names. The IAU has dubbed them P1 and P2, which are actually just placeholders. Those that discover planets and moons and such, get first crack at submitting a name for them to the IAU. Instead of thinking up something himself, Showalter and colleagues chose to hold a contest at SETI—members submitted many ideas but two won out—Vulcan and Cerberus (the former got the most votes after being supported by William Shatner). Showalter made good on his promise and submitted the two names to the IAU, but they may not be approved—Vulcan has already been used as the name for the hypothetical planet between Mercury and the Sun, and Cerberus has already been used to name an asteroid.

What really got the IAUs attention however was a contest held by a group that calls itself Uwingu. Their stated mission is to financially reward promising scientific endeavors. They recently ran a contest with the aim of giving a better name to Alpha Centauri Bb—an exoplanet discovered just last year and the closest ever found to our own planet. Uwingu collected $4.99 for each nomination and 99 cents for each vote. The winner was "Albertus Alauda" submitted by a guy that a wanted to honor his grandfather. Upon hearing of the contest, the IAU felt moved to respond—they did so by issuing a press release chastising Uwingu (without mentioning them by name) for holding an naming contest that would not result in the winner receiving official recognition, or even be recognized as a process leading to recognition.

Uwingu, apparently unswayed by the IAU's rebuke has chosen to extend the contest, anticipating far more entrants and votes as a result of the press it has received due to the IAUs' response.

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laurele
2.1 / 5 (11) Apr 25, 2013
What makes a planet name "official?" This is what more people need to ask. There is a serious problem with statements like this one above: "Here on Earth there is just one body that is officially recognized as the gate-keeper for naming stars, planets, moons and anything else that exists out in space—the IAU."

Says who? The IAU is a self-appointed body whose "authority" depends solely on public consensus. If enough people ignore the IAU or use the definitions and names of another group, then the IAU essentially becomes meaningless. The IAU has already discredited itself with its ridiculous Pluto decision, adopted by four percent of its members, which to this day is not accepted by many astronomers. Uwingu is raising money to support astronomy research and space missions, something badly needed in these days of government cutbacks. The IAU should welcome this initiative instead of condemning it.

Q-Star
2.8 / 5 (13) Apr 25, 2013
The IAU is not irked because someone, anyone names a particular body. They are irked because everyone and their aunt Molly expects that they accept the name and make it official.

Ya are free to call any object out there anything ya want. But don't get your feeling hurt when ya try to get the IAU to use that name. Ya are free to see if ya can get the entire world to accept your pet name. But until ya join the IAU, ya have no say in what they call it.

The names they give are the "IAU" names. They are not mandates that they are the only names. It's not like they are a governmental entity who decides the official name of anything. They speak only for the astrophysical community which are included in its membership. Outside organizations, polities, or individuals are free to accept or reject the IAU naming policies.

Ya are free to sell parcels of the moon if ya can find a buyer.
geokstr
1.7 / 5 (9) Apr 25, 2013
I think we can resolve this easily by giving those who had previously purchased the name of a star first dibs at naming an exoplanet or a moon.
Maggnus
3.6 / 5 (5) Apr 25, 2013
Part of the problem is that although the IAU is the only authority that can name objects, it is incredibly slow and totally uninspired to do so. I don;t think they've accpeted a single name for an exo-planet to date, despite some planets being known for nearly 20 years.

I think they should consider accepting applications for some of the names from these contests. They could charge a small fee for each application, and if the name submitted has some reasonable backing and history, why not accept it?

It would also be a public relations coup, giving a means by which the interest of the general public could be exploited to increase science knowledge. Seems like a win-win to me.
Q-Star
2.9 / 5 (13) Apr 25, 2013
Part of the problem is that although the IAU is the only authority that can name objects, it is incredibly slow and totally uninspired to do so. I don;t think they've accpeted a single name for an exo-planet to date, despite some planets being known for nearly 20 years.


They are NOT the only authority that can name objects. ANY authority or club can name whatever objects whatever name they would like. But IF a university, government org or encyclopedia publisher uses the IAU name, it's because they have voluntarily decided on their own to use that name. It's the leading organization of astronomers and astrophysicists, There is no requirement that ANYONE use their names, designations, or descriptions of anything.

They are so careful about naming these things, anything at because of politics, posturing & campaigning it would bring on. Unless something is truly exceptional or a type specimen, a number that describes it's location, type & date of discovery is best.
Q-Star
2.8 / 5 (12) Apr 25, 2013
Pluto is a perfect example of the discourteous displayed toward the IAU.

They as a professional organization, were seeking to make THEIR classification system more rational, based on phenomena and consistent descriptions. A private professional organization. The entire thing turned into a general lay public, politicians, grade school children and aunty Molly sending streams of endless emotional rants to anyone even vaguely associated with the field

Private professional organizations do not come into being for any other reason except to provide a platform, a venue for professionals to intercourse with others in that profession.

They may have a public service or public relations arm, but their reason for being is not a public obligation or service.

Teachers join teacher unions. Electricians join the IWBE, truckers join the Teamsters. And I don't know any IAU member who seeks to "advise" them on how they conduct their business.

I apologize for the rant. But the IAU isn't NASA
Maggnus
3.4 / 5 (5) Apr 25, 2013
Lol Q tell us what you really think! :) I disagree with you on this. The IAU`s classification is the only official nomenclature accepted across the world, and as such any university or institution is required by convention to use the names that they choose. Furthermore, any association dealing with astronomical matters must also use their nomenclature when submitting papers or similar, or face the dreaded not for publication that sinks careers.

Sure any private organization can use whatever name they decide fits their particular interest within the boundaries of that organization. But that`s not the point. The public`s interest in things like extrasolar planets turns on imagination and wonder. Naming these things fires that imagination, which in turn fires the desire to learn more, which leads to science and funds for discovery. Comparing the membership of the IAU to teachers or truckers is comparing apples to oranges.

No the IAU is not NASA, but nor is it a private club.
Maggnus
5 / 5 (3) Apr 25, 2013
I agree with most of what the IAU does. I have no problem with them setting out classifications for things like planets. What I do not like, is the time they take do do these things, especially when there is no apparent mechanism by which naming conventions can be utilized to expediate the naming of, or accepting other`s names for, the hundreds of thousands of objects that enough is known about to name.

Surely there is a better system than making sure the names chosen are done so at a pace that ensures planets doscovered 20 years ago remain un-named. We know of some 2500 planets, and all indications are we`ll know of ten times that many in 20 years. What hurt is there for accepting names offered by such groups, within an established set of parameters set by the IAU?
Sinister1811
2.3 / 5 (6) Apr 26, 2013
I don't blame them, actually. With some of the crap the public comes out with, I wouldn't be surprised if they named a planet "penis" or "YOLO" or some other stupid name. As it is, we already hear the same old overused "ur anus lolz" joke billions of times, and those people with a general interest in astronomy are just plain old tired of it.
Q-Star
2.6 / 5 (10) Apr 26, 2013
No the IAU is not NASA, but nor is it a private club.


But it is. Ya only join at the pleasure of the IAU. That is why hobbyists, dilettantes, amateurs are not voting members. They can exclude anyone, for any reason, so yes, it is very private. Outsiders may not like it but that is the only way they can maintain an orderly structure to conduct the business they do.

It's no different than the AMA or ABA,, if they have been given a special status as "authority" in their field, it has not be done by themselves, the public, the universities, the government org, etc, have conferred that upon them, but the IAU doesn't ask for it, doesn't go out in the public arena to lobby for that status. The status came TO them over time.

Their aims are not & shouldn't be driven by public sentiment or the emotional outpourings of "interested" lay people.

"NAMING" things isn't their business. Classifying, organizing, & studying them is the prime concern. Lobby the U.N. for names.
laurele
2 / 5 (8) May 28, 2013
The IAU classification is not the only one "official" one accepted across the world, especially since the Pluto debacle. Plenty of astronomers reject their 2006 planet definition, continue to refer to Pluto as a planet, and publish professional papers with no problem. No one is required to use the IAU nomenclature to publish papers as long as they are clear regarding the identity of the object to which they are referring.
Inspector Spacetime
1 / 5 (5) May 29, 2013
Not surprising that this discussion should circle back to Pluto, the once-double-planet with many moons.

More interesting is the establishment of who has the right to name something.

With regard to Pluto, the search for it had been the decade-long project of Percival Lowell and his observatory. Back in 1930, when Tombaugh finally found Pluto while working at the observatory, there was no question over who should determine the name of Planet X: The Lowell Observatory.

The members of the observatory accepted suggestions from the public, including the name proposed by an 11-year-old from Oxford. They voted. They chose Pluto.

Columbus sailed over an ocean to the continent on the other side and named it America.

David Legg, publishing his study of a Cambrian ancestor of the lobster, named the arthropod Kooteninchela deppi after Edward Scissorhands.

The tradition is pretty simple and obvious. Discoverers of things are allowed the honor of naming them. Not arbitrary associations.
Q-Star
2.3 / 5 (9) May 29, 2013
Columbus sailed over an ocean to the continent on the other side and named it America.


No he didn't. Be that as it may,,

Naming something is not a right. Anyone call something whatever they like. And refuse to call something by any name someone else has given. The acceptance of names is voluntary. If your legislator, textbook writer, museum director or movie maker use an IAU name, and ya don't like the IAU, with the person who accepts and uses that name, lobby them, not IAU.

The IAU is not in the naming business. They don't have the resources to establish an "Office of Naming Newly Discovered Objects Without Hurting Someone's Feelings" with it's sub-bureau the "Office of Endless Email, Telephone, and Snail Mail Answers to Address 7 Billions People's Opinions on Naming the Billions of Things in the Universe Worthy of Being Named.".

It's all we can do to keep up with just cataloging things by location and type of object. Ya folks are pontificating on a P.R. nightmare.

Inspector Spacetime
1.7 / 5 (6) May 29, 2013
You did just write, "The IAU is not in the naming business"? And I bet you did that with a straight face, no less.

Your argument holds no water. There are indeed official names for places and objects. Political bodies - authorities - do engage in the endorsement and rejection of names.

It's a real issue, what something is called, and why. Language has always been political. Who has the power to determine how we talk about people, things and ideas, and how that power is used, has always been important.
Q-Star
2.3 / 5 (9) May 29, 2013
You did just write, "The IAU is not in the naming business"? And I bet you did that with a straight face, no less.


Wrote it with a straight face indeed I did. Your response, that did cause a smile. Would ya help me become more informed by pointing out where in the IAU mission statement, or by-laws it says naming is the business of the IAU?

Language has always been political. Who has the power to determine how we talk about people, things and ideas, and how that power is used, has always been important.


There is no legal compulsion for ya to use/not use the IAU naming conventions. Ya act as if ya think that the IAU acquired some legal right to name or not name things. If the IAU had that power, then it is an issue to take up with whatever legislator might gave them that (fictitious) power. Anyone, government, school, writer or private person that uses the IAU names, does so not at the request/demand of the IAU. They do it on their own, The IAU is a non-public body.
laurele
2.5 / 5 (8) May 30, 2013
Inspector Spacetime, Pluto is still the double planet with many moons. Otherwise, I agree with you completely. The IAU can say and do whatever they want, and the rest of the world, including members of the astronomy community, can choose to ignore them and make them irrelevant to all but themselves.
laurele
2.1 / 5 (7) May 30, 2013
Would ya help me become more informed by pointing out where in the IAU mission statement, or by-laws it says naming is the business of the IAU?

Then why did the IAU object so strongly to the private company Uwingu starting a public initiative to collect names for exoplanets? They went out of their way to publish a vitriolic press release comparing the efforts of a well-respected astronomer, Dr. Alan Stern, to con artists who sell land on the moon. The IAU wouldn't care what another private group did unless it felt threatened.

Also, Q-Star, what's with the constant repetition of "ya?" Is that the language you use in professional journals?
Q-Star
2.3 / 5 (9) May 30, 2013
Then why did the IAU object so strongly to the private company Uwingu starting a public initiative to collect names for exoplanets?


Because they generate nonillions of arguements, complaints and people like ya who demand that the IAU now accept the "prize" and use it.

They went out of their way to publish a vitriolic press release comparing the efforts of a well-respected astronomer, Dr. Alan Stern, to con artists who sell land on the moon. The IAU wouldn't care what another private group did unless it felt threatened.


It only pointed out that Stern had no foundation or authority issue such prizes. No more so than Stern has legitimate rights to sell plots on the moon. Warning people to be aware of the fact that any "name" won in a contest was meaningless to anyone but the contestant and they would have to "use" their prize tongue-in-cheek.

Also, Q-Star, what's with the constant repetition of "ya?"


It's a 50 year long habit. I'm a native of Ireland.

Q-Star
2.5 / 5 (8) May 30, 2013
and the rest of the world, including members of the astronomy community, can choose to ignore them and make them irrelevant to all but themselves.


Sounds like a great plan. When might ya be starting that movement? No more letter campaigns, no more petitions, no more ad infinitum email spamming, no more obstructing their activities. Soon sure? Ignore would be a fine thing. (I suspect "ignore" was just a rhetorical device, not an actual plan.)
Shelgeyr
2 / 5 (8) May 30, 2013
Here on Earth there is just one body that is officially recognized as the gate-keeper for naming stars, planets, moons and anything else that exists out in space—the IAU.


Manifestly not true. I hope what's irking people about this statement is the key phrase "officially recognized". There is NO Earth-spanning official body that has the authority to bestow such an official recognition. Please don't reply "the UN" because I don't need to laugh quite that hard.

In order for something to be officially recognized, there has to be an official to do the recognizing. In order for there to be world-wide recognition, well - you get it.

This or that country may recognize them - probably most do! - but to agree they're the only ones with the authority is to acquiesce to a soft, silly, harmless tyranny. I don't mind them naming planets. Claiming they're the only ones who CAN crosses the line and they should be rebuked, early and often.

Besides - they should've stuck with "Xena"!
laurele
2.5 / 5 (8) May 30, 2013
Because they generate nonillions of arguements, complaints and people like ya who demand that the IAU now accept the "prize" and use it.

Wrong. Uwingu never said it would demand anything of the IAU. Uwingu may make suggestions to the IAU or may simply decide to use recommended names on their own. No one is demanding any prizes. The funding is all to support astronomy research and space missions.

No individual or group has any more "authority" than any other regarding the naming of planets, stars, etc. Uwingu did note that many celestial objects already have more than one name or designation. Polaris is also known as Alpha Ursae Minoris, SAO 308 and FK5 907. Areas on the Moon and Mars have been named by astronauts rather than by the IAU.

Sounds like our campaigns, email writing and petitions are getting to you. Regardless of whether we start a new group, these will continue, with the goal of clarifying to the public that there are two sides to the Pluto debate.
Q-Star
2.7 / 5 (9) May 31, 2013
Sounds like our campaigns,


Are fine, unless driven by obssessive stalker types.

email writing


Spamming and vandalizing would more accurately describe what ya do.

and petitions are getting to you.


Your petitions were received (ad infinitum, ad nuasium) ya just can't accept the response to them.

Regardless of whether we start a new group, these will continue,


Your old groups will forever morph into new groups, and I have not a doubt that it will continue ad infinitum, ad nausium.

with the goal of clarifying to the public that there are two sides to the Pluto debate.


Then send your emails and browbeating to the public. Why single out a selected target(s) for repeated harassment and annoyance? Quit email spamming of people who ya know don't what the email, and ya know disagree with ya, and ya KNOW that are only ANNOYED by your emails. ANNOYING is your intent.

Mike is correct when he refers to ya as an "obsessive nutter".
JohnGee
2.7 / 5 (9) May 31, 2013
I think we can resolve this easily by giving those who had previously purchased the name of a star first dibs at naming an exoplanet or a moon.

Geokstr, if a huckster sells you property on the Moon what are you owed: A) Property on the Moon from another authority or B) Compensation from the huckster? That said, I don't think the organizations in question here are scamming anyone, but you leave the possibility.

Honestly, in this case, I think the IAU is out of line, but not for the reasons being stated. Whoever discovers an object is usually given a good deal of weight in determining the name of said object. This just seems to be universal social convention. If an organization discovers an astronomical body and wants to transfer its gravitas in naming the body to someone through a contest, that should be considered no different than that organization naming it directly. That being said the recent IAU "controversy" floating around here the last few days is goofy at best.