Exciting new planets are being discovered right and left, but it’s hard for the public to talk about them because of the terrible official names. That’s what Alan Stern, a CEO for a space funding startup company called Uwingu, told Universe Today when he opened a contest Tuesday to allow the public to pay to nominate and vote for a new name for the closest planet known outside our solar system.
For the low, low price of only $4.99, you can nominate a new name “from any language or culture … [that's] anything the average grandmother would be proud to hear her grandchild say.” It costs only 0.99 to vote.
The current name for the planet in question is Alpha Centauri Bb, which follows the agreed-upon naming convention created by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Alpha Centauri B is the name of the star it circles. The small “b” indicates that it’s the second-closest known planet in orbit around that star.
Another example of how planets are named can be found in last week’s announcement about a super-sized solar system being investigated by the University of Toronto. A huge planet whose atmosphere is being analyzed has the rather harsh name of HR 8799c. From that, astronomers can use the official sky catalog to find the planet’s sun, called HR 8799. They can also immediately see that it’s the third known planet from that star.
The result? No one can deny that the official names for new planets are an ugly, hard-to-remember stream of characters and numbers.
But a look at the proposed new names for poor old Alpha Centauri Bb tells you why the IAU has a problem with Uwingu’s plan. If anyone can nominate anything non-obscene for a fee, you get nominations like the current “Ron Paul,” “LoveAA,” “Mitt Romney,” and “No More Taxes.” And the contest has only been open for one day.
There’s no freakin’ way that the International Astronomical Union is going to call a planet “No More Taxes,” not if everybody in the universe and all the Space Brothers too vote for the new name. And I’m not saying that it’s an American Airlines employee who loves AA, but what’s to stop an airline — or anybody else — from buying to votes to “sponsor” a planet?
It’s one thing to call a stadium the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but an entire planet? Do we really want to open that door?
The IAU has already said that Uwingu’s names won’t be used. Nominate and vote for whatever name you like, but don’t expect your name to become the official informal name for the planet.
But that won’t stop the name sellers. Another hustle — this one to name the stars — has been ongoing since 1978, according to star name seller Name a Star™. For the low, low price of $49.95, you can give a package to someone that says that the star has been renamed after the person you’re trying to impress.
Except, of course, it hasn’t. The IAU’s position is clear: “[S]uch ‘names’ have no formal or official validity whatever: A few bright stars have ancient, traditional Arabic names, but otherwise stars have just catalogue numbers and positions on the sky…like true love and many other of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy.”
If you have paid to name a star or a new planet, you’ve been rooked.
[Photo Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)]