You Can’t Name a Star, but You Can Name a Planet

If you’ve ever considered buying a star, let me give you advice: don’t. The International Star Registry, the major company that sells “naming rights” to stars, has no official power to do so and admits the name is only put in their own internal catalog, not any reference that astronomers use. In fact, the stars they name aren’t even visible to the naked eye. And considering that they have sold over 1 million named stars, we’re probably getting to the point where you need to make an investment in a good telescope if they’re keeping true to the promise of not renaming any stars.

So screw naming a star and go with something practical: name a planet that orbits another star (an exoplanet). The International Astronomical Union (IAU), the official body responsible for naming celestial bodies, has recently changed its procedures on naming exoplanets and their moons. Part of this was in response to an attempt to sell naming rights to a nearby exoplanet. The IAU pointed out that a naming process taking place completely outside it may have a winner that still doesn’t end up as the official name.  (They seemed particularly worried that people were paying money for this, even if it was a fundraising campaign for astronomy.) The campaigns were really popular, though, and the IAU seems to have decided that the public interest in these cases merits opening up exoplanet naming to the masses.

Currently, exoplanets just get an official scientific name based on the star they orbit. It’s not the typical science fiction standard where a planet’s name is the star it orbits plus a number representing what order it is from the star. Planets are still named after the star they orbit, but are named with lower case letters indicating the order of discovery, not the distance of the sun. So 55 Cancri e is closer to 55 Cancri than 55 Cancri b, but b was discovered first. The IAU’s new proposal doesn’t replace the technical names, but also creates official “common” names for public use.

Like all IAU naming systems, this one comes with a lot of rules. The big ones are that suggested names shouldn’t duplicate names of other bodies and they shouldn’t be commercial, offensive, or controversial. Other than that, the system is pretty open because the same rules as naming asteroids and dwarf planets apply. Those are pretty diverse, with names ranging from Ceres, Roman goddess of grain, to Einstein to Karl Marx. The system also specifies how groups that want to organize competitions to name bodies should do so: organizations should notify the IAU in advance, not collect revenue from the process, and inform the discoverers of the object.

One thing the IAU points out is that our understanding of discovered exoplanets is incomplete. In particular, there isn’t 100% certainty that each exoplanet that has been announced actually exists. Some of the detection techniques can give false positives, and though repeated observations are done before the discovery is announced to minimize that chance, it still exists. And it is also possible some planets may have been detected multiple times by different techniques. I wonder what would happen if the multiple discoveries had different names and were later revealed to be one.

If this really does catch on (and the IAU manages to quickly assign public names), I wonder how much theme naming would unofficially catch on in nomination. Would Sirius’ planets be doomed to dog and/or Harry Potter names? And I’m totally seeing someone trying to name a gas giant with multiple moons Polyphemus and one of its moons Pandora.

What’s interesting is the IAU note seems to cover more than just exoplanets and their moons. The title says “planets and planetary satellites” and nothing in the announcement specifies that the procedure only applies to extrasolar bodies. So this might mean that this applies to all future planet and satellite discoveries, even in our solar system. While we’re probably done with finding planets, astronomers expect to find more dwarf planets (though technically, as minor planets, they follow a different naming scheme than regular planets) and we keep finding satellites of both regular and dwarf planets. In fact, the IAU chose one of the names that won a contest to name one of Pluto’s two newly discovered moons.

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