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War of words over naming of exoplanets
BY KEITH COOPER
ASTRONOMY NOW

Posted: 18 April 2013


Uwingu, the crowd-sourcing company founded by scientist Alan Stern, has hit back at the International Astronomical Union's claim that only they can give names to astronomical bodies, including exoplanets.


An artist's concept of the exoplanet HR 8799b. Will we soon be calling this world by another name? Image credit: NASA/ESA/G Bacon (STScI).
 
Uwingu allow anybody to nominate a name for an exoplanet for US $4.99, or vote for a name that has already been nominated for US $0.99. In return, participants receive a certificate with their chosen nomination. Up to half the money raised will then be donated to the 'Uwingu Fund', which will provide grants to scientists and educators for astronomical research or outreach projects.

Currently how an exoplanet is named depends upon how it was discovered. Planets that have been found using the transit method, when the planet passes in front of its star and blocks some of the starlight, are named after the project or mission that discovered them, such as Kepler-22b or WASP-12b (the 'b' refers to the second object discovered in the system after the star). Alternatively, planets found via the Doppler shift in their parent star's motion as the star and planet orbit around a common centre of gravity are named after their star, such as alpha Centauri Bb or tau Ceti b. Such names are chosen to maintain an unambiguous naming scheme, but unfortunately these conventions can lead to some nigh on impenetrable names, such as HD 40307b or 1RXS1609b - designations that some scientists sardonically refer to as 'telephone number' names.

Uwingu suggest that it is time to change that and make these exoplanets feel more relatable to the public by giving ordinary people the chance to name them. Unfortunately, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) hold all official naming rights and, in a press release issued last week reiterated the official naming procedure.

Without referring to Uwingu by name, the IAU stated that, "Recently, an organisation 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 recognised exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued."


There are many exoplanets that need naming: some estimates suggest as many as 160 billion could exist in the Milky Way alone. Image: NASA/JPL–Caltech/R Hurt (SSC-Caltech).
 
Uwingu, however, have hit back, claiming that they are not selling official names, but popular names. In other words nicknames, which are frequently used in astronomy from the names of mountains, small craters and boulders on Mars that the rovers come across, to names given to deep sky objects, such as the Ring Nebula or Whirlpool Galaxy.

"Uwingu affirms the IAU's right to create naming systems for astronomers," the company replied in a statement. "But we know that the IAU has no purview - informal or official - to control popular naming of bodies in the sky or features on them, just as geographers have no purview to controls people's naming of features along hiking trails. People clearly enjoy connecting to the sky and having an input to common-use naming. We will continue to stand up for the public's rights in this regard and look forward to raising more grant funds for space researchers and educators this way."

One of the first worlds to be awarded a Uwingu name will be alpha Centauri Bb, a probably rocky super-earth discovered around one of the three stars of the alpha Centauri system - the nearest star system to Earth - only last year. The closing date for voting is midnight Eastern Daylight time on Monday 22 April. Will the chosen name catch on? That remains to be seen. However, for Alan Stern, who is also the Principal Investigator for NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, as well as a former Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, how well the name catches on isn’t the main thing.

"Of course we want more and more people to use these names - scientists and lay people," he tells Astronomy Now. "But our real goal is for people to engage, have fun and help fund space science and education."

Stern says that if another company wants to start up and do the same thing as Uwingu, then that is not a problem even if it results in a rival set of names. "We aren't claiming to be unique," he says. "Look at how any names there are for objects in space already!"

Stern is confident that people understand they are nominating and voting for popular nicknames, not official designations, when they sign onto Uwingu. However, somewhat intriguingly, the IAU allude to the fact that they too are looking into giving some exoplanets 'proper' names. IAU Commission 53, which handles exoplanets, will consult on the topic of having popular names for exoplanets. In the meantime, the IAU are encouraging astronomers and public to keeping using the already existing naming schemes.

For more information, you can check out the Uwingu website and the IAU's page regarding the official naming of astronomical objects.

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