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.
Hey! Did you know there’s a mountain range on Mercury called Caloris Montes? Didja?
Or a large depression on Europa called Castalia Macula, which is oddly dark and red?
Or a long, steep-sided ditch called Baba-Jaga Chasma on Venus?
Or a chaotic region on Mars called, awesomely, Chryse Chaos?
Well, I do, now that I’ve discovered the way cool Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature — a fancy way of saying "planet feature name list", brought to you by International Astronomical Union Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature — the group of folks who officially name stuff in the solar system.
You can pick the world of your choosing (like Venus, or Europa, or Saturn) and then see a list of features including mountains, cliffs, depressions, and lots of other stuff. Click that, and you get specific sites on the world you can choose from. When you do, you things like the name, where the name comes from (Baba-Jaga is a witch from Slavic legend, although it doesn’t add that she’s also the basis of one of the pieces in Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition musical suite, and yes I’m showing off), position, and sometimes even an interactive picture of the feature.
For example, here is Chryse Chaos:
Pretty nifty. It isn’t complete; poking around I found some features didn’t have coordinates, and it was 50/50 with getting the interactive map set up. But that’s OK, we’re still exploring the solar system, and this is a very handy tool if you can’t remember where you left your keys when visiting the crater Helios on Saturn’s moon Hyperion.
And yes, I’m having way too much fun today. And if I ever write a scifi novel, I’m including a character named Castalia Macula.
Tip o’ the tri-fold map to the Mercury MESSENEGER space probe’s twitter feed.
This is very cool: a competition has been set up to allow school kids to suggest names for the small solar system bodies that orbit beyond Neptune!
The competition has been OKed by the International Astronomical Union, which has a subcommittee that names such objects. The ages groups for submissions are divided up into ages 1-11, 12+, and school groups.
Emily at The Planetary Society Blog has more details as well. If you’re a teacher or student, then you definitely should jump in; this will make a great school project. But hurry: the competition closes on May 30, so get naming!