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The Red Tape of Naming Exoplanets

By Wesley Fenlon

Are you a member of the International Astronomical Union? No? Then don't expect to be naming planets anytime soon.

"No, you can't actually name a star after a person," wrote Penny-Arcade in 2012. "But what if you actually could, for reals?" Cut to that day's comic: a kid names a star after his mother. Then, five thousand, four hundred years later: War in the Susan System! Great joke--only it turns out that the very real International Astronomical Union is none too pleased about a similar situation playing out right now.

The story, by way of the New Yorker, is that a newly founded non-profit science fund called Uwingu is raising money to fuel scientific research. Sounds great, right? They'll give out grants just like other non-profit funds and government branches. But one of the ways they're raising money is a bit unusual: For $5, they let people suggest names for planets out there in the Milky Way. Simply voting on a favorite only costs $1. And now they've picked their first winner: the closest planet to our solar system, orbiting Alpha Centauri, is now named Albertus Alauda.

Photo credit: NASA.

Except the International Astronomical Union isn't keen on the idea. Writes the New Yorker: "According to its Web site, the I.A.U.’s tasks include serving 'as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and surface features on them.' The process of naming new objects is complicated (the Web précis of the document is itself formidable), and the I.A.U. press release claims exclusive rights to decide what a planet is called—even over the wishes of the scientist or scientists who discovered it."

But with a membership of over 10,000 astronomers and scientists, the I.A.U. isn't exactly able to give all of its members a direct say into the naming of a planet. If other astronomers and scientists are the ones running Uwingu, and the money that goes towards naming planets pays for research, isn't this all for a good cause?

The New Yorker digs further into the controversy, pointing out that planet "license plates"--their alphanumeric designations like Planet 2M 0746+20b--won't disappear, and astronomers can still use those names even if easier handles are established through popular votes. There may be hope for a Planet Susan yet.