What's in an exoplanet name?

Most 8 year olds can reel off the names of the planets with ease. These 8 names (they might have trouble remembering Laurele's 13 or 58) are easily recognised, even the ones of planets unknown in antiquity such as Uranus and Neptune. Since the first exoplanet - a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun - was discovered in 1990, we've found over 400 and the numbers are going up rapidly. These planets have names such as OGLE-TR-56 b, Gliese 876 d and 51 Peg b. These collections of letters and numbers make strong passwords for your email account but aren't the easiest thing to remember.

Over on the ArXiv, W. Lyra has written a rather long paper in which they advocate proper names for exoplanets. The paper goes on to suggest a naming system based largely on Roman-Greek mythology. Although I agree that there is a place for proper names for many of these discoveries (at least until Gaia starts churning them out by the Magrathean truckload), I have to disagree with the need to keep to Roman-Greek mythology. It is useful to have coherency though. I also question the need to use deities or mythological characters from ancient times. In fact, I would suggest not using them precisely because planets, moons (except the ones around Uranus which take Shakespearean names) and many stars already use those for names. Craters, asteroids and comets tend to take the names of their discoverers or other famous, real people so exoplanets could stay clear of those.

What's stopping us from using modern, fictional names for exoplanets? Modern names wouldn't preclude them having an association with the constellation they are in, the star they orbit or a nearby object of interest. Finding an association just requires some imagination and the Greeks and Romans didn't shy away from doing that.

Modern names (say, under 1000 years old) could come from the literature of all cultures and certainly shouldn't be limited to Anglo-Saxon origin. Planetary systems could be themed around a particular story much as moons often have an association with their host planet or neighbouring constellations sharing stories. Imagine planets found in Ursa Minor being named Zaphod, Dent, Trillian or Slarty Bartfast. Of course those are a little flippant but over on Twitter people have been coming up with plenty of great suggestions covering a range of literature.

Of course, as both the author of the paper and @
cosmos4u point out, names may sound offensive in other languages or cultures. The most famous example in English is the snigger-fest that is Uranus but even that can be neutralised by pronouncing it in a different way i.e. without the "ay" sound in the middle and putting the emphasis on "ur". I suspect that this problem exists regardless of the source of the names so shouldn't stop the use of modern names but should be considered.

What do you think? Should exoplanets have proper names? Should we stick to the classics or start representing human imagination from more recent times? Comments welcome below.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 23rd Oct 2009 (20:34 BST) | 74 Comments | Permalink
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