Uwingu wants you to submit names for their planetary baby book

By Phil Plait | November 8, 2012 9:38 am

Astronomers are discovering a lot of planets these days. The official count is 800+, with thousands of more candidates (unconfirmed but suspiciously planet-like).

Right now we give them alphabet soup names. Alpha Centauri Bb. HR 8799b (through HR8799 e). And of course, everyone’s favorite, 2MASS J04414489+2301513b.

These catalog names are useful, but less than public friendly. In science fiction we get Vulcan, Psychon, Arrakis, and other cool names. So why not in real life?

The folks at Uwingu asked themselves this very thing. Uwingu (pronounced oo-WIN-goo) is an astronomy and space startup company that’s looking to fund scientific research and exploration. I wrote an intro to Uwingu back when it was soliciting funds to get initially rolling (happily, that goal was met). The idea is to sell goods and services to space enthusiasts, and use the proceeds toward doing real science. The folks in charge are professional astronomers and space scientists at the tops of their fields, people like Alan Stern and Pamela Gay. Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Advisors for Uwingu, an unpaid position, but I’d write about it and support it anyway. These are top-notch scientists behind the project.

What does this have to do with the letter and number salad that is the current state of exoplanet names? As their first foray, the folks at Uwingu decided to let people create a suggested names list for these planets. For $0.99 a pop, you can submit a name you like to the database, and for another $0.99 you can vote for your favorite in the current list. I’ll note these names are not official – they are not assigned to specific planets, and only the International Astronomical Union can make these official (and mind you, they’re the ones who so elegantly handled the Pluto not being a planet issue (yes, that’s sarcasm)). But, these names will be seen by planetary astronomers, and eventually those planets are going to need names. Why not yours?

I think this is a fun idea. There are currently nearly a hundred names in the database as I write this, but it’s expected to grow rapidly. If you think there should be a Q’onoS, Abydos, or even Alderaan – in memoriam, of course – then head over to Uwingu.

Related Posts:

Uwingu: how *you* can directly fund science
Saving space science – do you Uwingu?
Helping save the planetary space program
Barnstorming the final frontier

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Space
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets, IAU, Uwingu

Comments (41)

  1. Carey

    John Scalzi named his Special Forces soldiers in the Old Man’s War series after scientists, so I’d like to steal that idea for planets:


    … and so on.

  2. MaDeR

    I’m surprised that Phil endorses yet another “name this star” or “acre on Moon” scam.

    If it is not scam, please explain me what is difference. I do not see any.

  3. Mark Pearl

    This is nothing more than the International Star Registry with prettier web graphics. These planet names will have no official status whatsoever and the company behind this will pocket the money. If I were one of the Indiegogo funders I would be howling mad that this is all that they could come up with. Look at some of the names that they have listed. Who is going to take this seriously? This looks like something that the uwingu folks came up with over a long weekend.

  4. theoncomingstorm

    The thing is the names that IAU gives these planets are hard for the general public to remember (and me). Ok If I had the the chance to name planets in a solar system the names would be David, Philip, jodie, Alex. Dorothy, Deanna, Ella but that is a little ego centric. Maybe a couple of moons named Leonard and PhIip but that might lead to confusion.

  5. Bigfoot

    @MaDeR and @MarkPearl: “scam?” “pocket the money”? Puh…leaze! Did you even READ the post before your knee-jerk reactions? They are not “pocketing” the money — they are gathering it to fund science. They are not selling you the right to faux-name a star with a faux certificate to frame, they are selling you the chance to contribute a name in a fun way that might or might not be used someday — for a buck, in the name of gathering money for science. Just because it reminds you of a scam that sells false credentials does not make this a scam – they are not selling the same thing.

  6. Mark Pearl

    Did you check out their website, @Bigfoot? They are a for-profit company. That means they are looking to make a profit – for themselves and their investors. They are going to have to pay themselves a salary – starting with Alan Stern, right? If they were really interested in donating money to fund things (not a bad idea, BTW) then they should have created a non-profit organization such that you could take a tax deduction on your donation and their operations would be open and transparent. Why give your money to them and have them pocket some of it when you can just give your money directly to SETI or Planetary Society and let them use all of it – and get a tax deduction? Makes no sense IMHO.

  7. theoncomingstorm

    Well I would imagine that the money the make of this will go and find their research.

  8. Adrian Lopez

    Instead of supplying names for use by a commercial venture that will then claim ownership of the resulting database, how about a free and public database of planets and their suggested names?

  9. Chris

    For 99 cents, I’ll name a grain of sand after you on the beach of your choice, and for another 99 cents you can vote on popular names, and for another 99 cents I’ll send you a picture of your grain of sand.

    Seems a little fishy to me.

  10. theoncomingstorm

    Its just for fun.

  11. Chris

    @10 theoncomingstorm
    It’s just for fun.

    It’s all fun until one of the planets we name hear about it and it turns out that our name happens to be the same as the greatest insult the aliens could utter in their native tongue (if they have tongues). Now the entire alien world will start planning the destruction of Earth. This is a very dangerous game we are playing.

  12. Renee Marie Jones

    Of course, any of the “classic” names are off limits. Somebody in Second Life tried to call a sim “Arrakis” and got threatened by Herbert’s estate. The lawyers are everywhere and the corporations own everything … forever.

  13. Fizz

    Phil- watch your Klingon. That should be Qo’noS. :)

  14. John

    Back in the good ol’ days when computer magazines listed simple BASIC programs you could try yourself, I remember seeing a program which could generate ‘random’ planet names from a set of reasonably pronounceable syllables.

    (One example which has stuck in my head for some reason, was ESTEP CERVAY)

    It may have been in Kilobaud magazine.

    That’s got to be better than “2MASS J04414489+2301513b”

  15. Frank

    I have to echo #2 (MaDeR) and #9 (Chris) here. This is a very obvious scam. I see nothing on their website to indicate that this is legit in any way. The “product” sounds just like the International Star Registry, and the whole affair smells fishier than Cthulhu’s bathroom.

  16. Mark Pearl

    @Renee Marie Jones I wonder if they have good IP attorneys at uwingu. Did you see recently that the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien lawyered up and forced an anthropologist to stop using the word “Hobbit” to promote a free lecture he was giving on homo floresiensis aka the small “Hobbits” or ancient hominids that were discovered in the south pacific? How silly is that? Lots of words are owned by corporate interests and they will go after anyone who tries to use them for commercial purposes. These uwingu people are selling you the chance to put names in their commercial for-profit database and they are clearly not checking to see if these names are already someone’s intellectual property.

  17. Chris

    If you want to make some money legitimately, why don’t you start selling some life sized autographed posters of Pamela Gay or Neil DeGrasse Tyson with some inspirational messages, equations or astronomy pictures. What young astronomer wouldn’t want that on a wall?

  18. Wasn’t 51 Pegasi b already named “Bellerophon” 17 years ago?

  19. DanM

    If it were up to me, I’d name the first planet around Alpha Centauri B “51 Pegasus b”, and the first planet around 51 Pegasus “Alpha Centauri Bb”. And so on. Just to confuse everybody.

    And then I’d change the name of the earth to “Saturn”.

    Sigh. One day, when I’m emperor…

  20. Peter Davey

    “As imagination bodies forth
    The form of things unknown, the poet’s pen
    Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
    A local habitation and a name”.
    A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

    Of course, now it is slightly less imagination, and slightly more fact.

    We proceed.

  21. I can understand people thinking it’s a scam — I’d be thinking the same thing if it wasn’t endorsed by … oh, Phil Plait, for example. I would like to see a thorough overview of the relevant issues on the site.

    (I’d also like to see a lot of improvements to the interface, which is very clunky right now, but this isn’t the place to go into detail about that.)

    Personally, I’ve donated $3.96, about the same as two snacks from a dispensing machine. If I decide it’s a scam (ha!) I can always take $3.96 off my next donation to an astronomy podcast. I gave three votes to one of my favourite suggestions already on the list, and also nominated Olivigne, the name of the farmhouse where I was raised.

    Here’s my certificate (and yes, I should have said Uranus rather than Neptune, but I kind of rushed through the process). If anyone votes for my nomination of Olivigne, I will be surprised. And pleased. Pleasantly surprised, in fact.

  22. Chris

    @21 Adrian Morgan
    I looked at your certificate and on the bottom where it says “All these worlds are yours” there should be an asterisk “except Europa.”

  23. Mark Pearl

    @Adrian Morgan – the International Star Registry gives you fancy certificates too – but they hold zero value and mean nothing. You did not name anything. Nor is there any guarantee that this name will ever be applied to any planet anywhere. You just paid $0.99 for a PDF file automatically generated by a software program. If you wander around the site they say that “up to half” of that $0.99 could be given to their fund. “Up to half” can also mean “less than half”. The rest of your money goes into the pockets of the people who signed your PDF file.

  24. Infinite123Lifer

    Here is an article Phil wrote about the ISR awhile ago.


    So, I am highly doubting this is a scam as in

    scam (noun): Fraudulent deal.
    scam (verb) : To defraud or embezzle.

    fraudulent (adj) : dishonest, based on fraud or deception, false, phony

    So what is going on here?

    Phil says:
    “I’ll note these names are not official … ”

    And Uwingu says:
    “With your help we’re building a list of names — a baby book of names –… ”

    So its not official and they are building a baby book of names. So far the scam accusation is looking pretty bad since I am being told exactly what I am buying and what I am not buying, but for me it might get a little long as it goes on and says

    ” … — for Astronomers to use to identify the worlds they’re finding orbiting alien stars.”

    Are astronomers really going to use the database at Uwingu to identify worlds? After all the kerfuffle with ISR I would think Uwingu might clean up their speech a little bit if needed… like here again

    “At Uwingu, we think everyone on Earth should be able to leave their mark in space by helping name newly discovered planets in our galaxy.”

    If I register a name or vote for a name I am not necessarily “helping name” anything. I am helping to compile a baby book of names or popularize one or some technically with this promise:

    “Here at Uwingu, we’re asking the public to create a vast list of planet names for astronomers to choose from.”

    And Phil backs that up here:

    “But, these names will be seen by planetary astronomers, … ”

    So whats the deal? Once again can planetary astronomers unofficially name other worlds and might they seriously check the database at Uwingu? Cuz thats the extraordinary claim?

    In looking it over with my dust ridden, cracked and out of focus microscope I have concluded that I cannot see the entire picture. sigh

    FWIW it sounds fun for a dollar and why not just make it glaringly obvious like repetitive ad nauseum or whatever that its not official or that it might all disappear into a void or that maybe nobody will ever look at it or that any possible number of things might prevent the planet that we claimed you named being forever stuck with AZ 4179+21f and that no astronomer ever will ever possibly know that you named a specific planet Bob the Cat after your favorite cat Bob?

    It certainly probably would have helped out the ISR with all those claims of misleading people.

    Bottom line … feedback needed.

  25. booboo

    No matter what we name them now, when people get there they will give them Larry Niven-type names like “WeMadeIt” and “Jinx”.

    I suggest we name the first directly imaged planet “Isthatitthere”

  26. Mazatzal

    Wait…. you mean the International Star Registry didn’t really name a star Hazel after my granma? I want my money back!!!!

    And I want that all black, too hot for life planet to be called Giede Prime, and it’s sun can be called Harkonnen.

  27. Chris A.

    Slightly off topic, but speaking of planet names: What’s the deal with the planet discovered by two amateurs in the UK being named after them (“Threapleton Holmes B”? Seriously?). AFAIK, discovering a planet doesn’t give you the right to name it (after yourself or anyone else), by established conventions.

  28. Bob_In_Wales

    As in the film Titan A.E. I think “Bob” is a good name for a planet. Not that I’m biased or anything.

  29. James

    Reminds me of the old Monty Python sketch:

    “I’m here with a Mr. Raymond LuxuryYacht”
    “That’s Ya-cht.”
    “But it’s only spelled Raymond LuxuryYacht, it’s pronounced ThroatWobbler Mangrove.”

  30. verbatim

    Well, I could use a bit of fun amidst the dodgy real-world stuff, my first planet is “Banglet”, in honor of Mom and Pop Bigbang.

    As theoncomingstorm sez: IT’S JUST FOR FUN!!

  31. Varith

    I am not even going to nominate “Belgium” for a planet name!

  32. Love this idea! 8)

    @18. tracer asked : “Wasn’t 51 Pegasi b already named “Bellerophon” 17 years ago?”

    Bellopheron for 51 Pegasi b is one of a handful of semi-official names which have been sort of adopted but not officially so I gather. I hope it and “Osiris ” for HD 209458 b “Polydeuces” for Pollux b and “Methuselah” for PSR B1620−26 b stick among others.

    I think some of the significant planet hosting stars need actual names as opposed to numerical designations as well.

    I”d suggest “Gadolabove” for HR 8799 from Gamma Doradus (variable) Lambda Bootis (metal poor) Vega (Style IR excess circumstellar disk) – traits that notable planet hosting star unusally combines. Plus Antihelios /Anhelios for PSR B1257+12, the pulsar where the first pulsar planets – and first ever planets were discovered. Following the same reasoning as name Antares – indicating rival of our Sun.

  33. Joseph G

    Sure, seems like a great way to make a little money now. But lets see if you change your tune 25 years from now when we have to try and explain to people why the world’s most historic newspaper headline reads “SCIENTISTS FIND LIFE ON I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER.”

  34. Joseph G

    @25 booboo No matter what we name them now, when people get there they will give them Larry Niven-type names like “WeMadeIt” and “Jinx”.
    I suggest we name the first directly imaged planet “Isthatitthere”No matter what we name them now, when people get there they will give them Larry Niven-type names like “WeMadeIt” and “Jinx”.
    I suggest we name the first directly imaged planet “Isthatitthere”

    Yes. A thousand times yes. Or perhaps “Noitsnotdirtonthelens.”

  35. Joseph G

    I say we find a long period pulsar and name it Dubstep. Wub wub wub.

  36. BradAstronomy

    The “alphabet soup” names like HD69830, BD-08°2823, or 1RXS J160929.1−210524 are based on scientific information such as where they are in the sky, what satellite discovered it, what type of star it is, or what star catalogue they are first identified in. Anyone with more than a mild interest in astronomy should not only be familiar with these catalogues, but not require a watered-down nomenclature to keep track of them.

    Don’t turn astronomy into an American Idol of voting for insipid names. Donate your $0.99 to NASA/ESA/JAXA (y’know, a real scientific institution?) instead. If a name as complex as “Alpha Centauri Bb” is not public-friendly enough, then the ignorant masses have no hope of comprehending even the most mundane aspects of extrasolar exploration. Let education catch up before we start handing out planetary labels to everyone with an email address.

    AFAIC this is nothing more than the Lunar Real Estate sale. People with no authority selling artificial naming rights that were never for sale to begin with. Leave the hypothetical planet-naming to science fiction authors.

    Want to name an extrasolar planet? Get there first. I’m sure mining corporations will get first dibs somewhere in the 23rd century.

  37. Ian

    Note that at least one astronomer has already taken a stab at naming the first several hundred extrasolar planets:

  38. Mark Pearl

    @Uwingusky just posted a tweet bragging that they took someone’s money to name a planet “Petraeus” after an admitted adulterer who resigned his post as CIA director in disgrace. Yea, like the IAU and professional astronomers are going to take that suggestion seriously. If “Petraeus” has a satellite will they name it after his wife or his mistress? This is going to get weird fast,

  39. Wow, Mark, that’s terrible! You mean he really … oh. Adulterer. Is that all? For a moment I thought you said kitten torturer.

    There are things in @uwingusky’s Twitter stream that make me a little uncomfortable, but mentioning Petraeus is not one of them. More wince-inducing is their use of the word “democracy”, because a system where votes cost 99c and you can vote as many times as you like would no doubt appeal to certain politicians but is in fact the opposite of democracy. Also, those boilerplate messages: given the list of recipients they appear to be solicited, so not spam (I would withdraw my provisional support if I heard of any complaints), but it’s very odd, and seems at best a failure to make effective use of the medium.

    Allegations that Uwingu is a scam fall into two categories. One: the claim that Uwingu has acquired money by fostering the impression that submitted names are likely to acquire some sort of official (or at least widely-recognised) status. Two: the claim that Uwingu has acquired money by fostering the impression, falsely, that donations are an efficient way to contribute to space science.

    With the first claim, we know the names aren’t likely to be used, so the question is whether donors have the impression that they are. With the second claim, we know people have donated money on that understanding, so the question is whether it is true

    It’s possible submitted names will be used for something. For example, Uwingu could release planetarium software (or add-ons for existing software) in which exoplanets are represented with donor-contributed names (there are precedents for such things). The planet-naming project is plausibly just something to pass the time before the real projects start. But the market for that would be tiny, and has a boomerang in a black hole’s chance of translating into widespread recognition.

    It does bother me that the Uwingu site hardly bends over backwards to give people realistic expectations about the prospect of names. I think they have a duty to be more forthcoming, and find it wrong that articles and blog posts linking to the site are often significantly more so than the site itself. I also think their FAQ should address questions about their financial arrangements — we know that the people behind Uwingu are genuinely dedicated to space science as individuals, and presumably the reason for the for-profit status is that they think this will let them generate more money in the longer term (the Universe Today article dated 22 September said, “Half of all revenue go towards funding space research and education, and the other will go towards the costs of creating what they sell.“). But why aren’t I hearing such explanations from them? It should be their responsibility to provide the go-to page for reasonable questions about their legitimacy, and I do hope they provide it by the time the project goes out of beta.

    I’m in two minds about this, much like @Infinite123Lifer above. My support is grounded in my faith in the Phil Plaits and Pamela Gays of this world, but I can’t deny the presence of red flags. However, as I said before, my donations cost me nothing net-budget-wise if I don’t want them to: if I choose I can simply deduct them from money I’d otherwise give to Astronomy Cast. (I could also give back a dollar for every vote I get for Olivigne, now there’s a thought.)

    (I note there’s no Uwingu Wikipedia page yet. It would be sure to have a lively Talk page.)

    Finally, I’d like to propose that if ever an explanet is named after a libertarian such as Heinlein or Ron Paul (the top two candidates at present), it should be a planet that’s very far away and couldn’t possibly support life…

  40. AJ

    I was glad to contribute to Uwingu’s kickstarter or whatever it was, because it sounded like they were serious about helping students and academics get a boost in doing research. But so far I’ve been really disappointed. I’m sure a fair portion of the money does indeed go to the right people, but come on. They couldn’t have come up with something more original? This really is a rip-off of the Star Registry. Just because the money is going to a better place doesn’t make it any less goofy and frankly, it’s not the image I would have thought Uwingu would want to be putting out there. It’s a gimmick, nothing more.

  41. Matt B.

    Sorry, I’m saving my lists of planet names for my own science fiction stories. Besides, I tend to come up with sets of names, to be used in the same cosmeme.

    (You can all start using the word “cosmeme”, if you want, though. It comes from the Greek word for gem–“κόσμημα”–and it means the volume of space that belongs to a star, a replacement for “solar system”. My choice was obvious for its resemblence to “cosmos”, but I was looking at words that mean “gem” because my idea was that cosmemes would be dilineated by perpendicular-bisector planes between pairs of stars, making cosmemes faceted.)


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