Update: The Battle Over Who Gets to Name Planets

By Corey S. Powell | April 21, 2013 2:13 pm

Last Thursday, a team of scientists working with NASA’s Kepler space telescope described three intriguing new planets circling distant stars. They are just slightly larger than Earth and orbit in the “habitable zone” where temperatures could be right for liquid water and for life. The names of these amazing worlds? Kepler 62f, Kepler 62e, and Kepler 69c. Not to be confused with other much-celebrated recent discoveries like Kepler 64b, Kepler 22b, or Gliese 581g.

Habitable planets

Scientific illustrations of recently discovered, potentially habitable worlds. Left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, and Kepler-62f, compared with Earth at far right. (Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator and founder of a startup called Uwingu, thinks these newfound worlds should have real names, and that the general public should be able to have a say. The International Astronomical Union–the organization the organization that officially validates astronomical nomenclature–strongly objects to Uwingu’s approach, and has effectively thwarted it. After the IAU’s blistering April 12 press release attacking Uwingu, submissions to Uwingu’s fee-based online planetary naming database plummeted. Stern calls it a “torpedo attack.”

I am not a neutral party in this dispute. Uwingu has partnered with DISCOVER and its sister publication, Astronomy, to help promote Stern’s efforts to raise funds for various astronomical exploration projects. And as I noted in a previous post, I am also inherently sympathetic to Stern’s position. I do understand the IAU’s concern about allowing private companies to hijack to process of naming celestial objects–but that is not what Uwingu is doing, and several of the IAU’s statements about Uwingu (which the IAU never mentions by name, even though the identity is obvious) are highly misleading.

I am pleased to see that I’m not the only one coming to the defense of Uwingu and, more generally, to the idea that the public should have some say in the naming of new planets. On the Physics Today web site, Charles Day provides a thoughtful post on the value of getting ordinary people involved. At Universe Today (no relation), Nancy Atkinson does a great reporting job on the controversy and quotes several professional astronomers who disagree with the IAU arguments against Uwingu. Carolyn Collins, who calls herself TheSpacewriter, digs much more deeply into the flaws with the IAU approach.

The dust-up between Uwingu and the IAU would be a tempest in a teapot outside of the astronomical community, except that there is actually a lot at stake here for anyone who cares about cosmic exploration and science literacy. Uwingu is trying to perform two important services: getting the public to participate in one of the greatest discoveries of modern times, and raising money for very worthy but underfunded research and education projects. The idea the a professional bureaucracy with the stated goal of advancing astronomy and astronomical education would stand in the way of Uwingu’s efforts is both odd and unsettling.

There is still time to participate in Uwingu’s call to nominate a real name for Alpha Centauri Bb, the nearest known planet outside our solar system. In response to the slow-down that followed the IAU press release, Stern has extended his deadline to April 22. More important, Uwingu’s broader planet-name nomination process is ongoing. And the broader issue here is not going away. Having more of the general public invested in scientific discovery is a win for everyone.

MORE UPDATE (5/1): The winning name for Alpha Centauri Bb is Albertus Alauda.

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell



Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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