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) | 26 Comments | Permalink

Comments: What's in an exoplanet name?

gravatarJust after posting this, I noticed that @Exoplanetology posted their own take on the subject at http://exoplanetology.blogspot.com/2009/10/exoplanet-by-any-other-name.html

Posted by Stuart on Friday 23rd Oct 2009 (20:14 UTC)

I am just thinking if it should be more wise to stay with current name-number system, and save names for future discoveries of earth-like planets in habitable zones around their parent stars? It seems we can expect thousands of such planet discoveries within next 10-20 years, as both ground and space based telescopes grow larger and more precise.

Why waste names on exotic, extremally large exoplanets we can discover now?

Posted by Mlotek on Sunday 25th Oct 2009 (06:32 UTC)

gravatarI like the name-number system too, it's just shame that there have to be stars out there called OGLE-TR-56 which make exoplanet names far more complicated than they need to be!

Posted by James on Tuesday 27th Oct 2009 (11:47 UTC)

gravatarThanks for mentioning me, but I'm disappointed in your first sentence. It's not eight names. At least acknowledge that the number is in doubt. And kids have no problem remembering the long complicated names of all sorts of dinosaurs, so I don't think remembering 13 planet names is that hard. Then again, memorizing is really not important; it's understanding the characteristics of the different types of planets that matters.

Whatever naming system is used for exoplanets, the IAU should not have any voice in it.

Posted by Laurel Kornfeld on Friday 06th Nov 2009 (07:27 UTC)

gravatarLaurel, you've really disappointed me. My first sentence doesn't mention 8 names; it mentions 8 year olds. The number of planets is in the second sentence *and* I specifically included other numbers (yours!) in parentheses. It appears that you've read what you wanted to, and not what was there, so you could take issue with it.

You probably don't actually care about little Goofy anyway. I suspect it is just a way for you to argue with everyone.

The IAU was not mentioned anywhere in this post so why did you bring it up?

Posted by Stuart on Friday 06th Nov 2009 (10:06 UTC)

gravatarI don't really care about little Goofy??? Even the most ardent opponents of my position would be hard pressed to agree to that. I've run a blog on Goofy for over three years, done numerous public presentations, written on the subject for various publications, and am now writing a book on Goofy. Over the years I've come to be more, not less captivated by this enigmatic little planet. I don't want to argue with everyone over just anything, but I will stand up for Goofy's planet status--and for the status of all dwarf planets--whenever and wherever it is called into question.

Your second sentence says "these eight names" with the assumption that eight is the "established number of planets in the solar system when that is not the case. The number remains in dispute depending on whether or not one considers dwarf planets and near dwarf planets such as Vesta and Pallas as still falling under the category of planets. Yet in your sentence, you wrote as if the number eight is fact while the numbers 13 or 58 are "Laurele's" viewpoint and nothing more. That is not the case. There are two equally legitimate positions in this debate, and the second sentence could have easily been written to reflect that. How about "These eight, ten, or 13 names are easily recognized(though that might change if more small spherical objects in the solar system are counted as planets)."

You asked about naming exoplanets. I brought up the IAU as an example of whom not to ask since they've messed up on this before. Similarly, if someone asked how should the US get out of Iraq, I wouldn't ask George W. Bush since he's already messed things up in that area.

Posted by Laurel Kornfeld on Saturday 07th Nov 2009 (06:48 UTC)

gravatarFor goodness sake Laurel.

In my life you are the only person creating a controversy over this. You will beg to differ but in *my* experience, in this different geographical location, that is true. I think everyone I've met accepts the situation for what it is; that the IAU's decision is their decision and doesn't have to be followed. You keep getting the IAU confused with a government or the police. The IAU simply defines a working (not final) convention for *it's members*, not a law for them or the rest of us.

On your other point, do you mean that the IAU messed up object naming before or messed up defining the term planet? They are different things and are done in very different ways.

Please get some perspective on this and stop continuously attacking *me* for not following your convention on semantics. Seriously, you're behaving like the thought police and I have to do what you say otherwise I'll get lambasted in the comments.

(Just in case you've forgotten, I am *not* a member of the IAU.)

Posted by Stuart on Saturday 07th Nov 2009 (12:02 UTC)

Congratulations on not being a member of the IAU. I'm not attacking you at all, just the choice of words in your sentence, which inherently expresses a bias toward the IAU planet definition as being "the truth."

The contoversy over Goofy and planet definition is all over the place--on Internet astronomy sites and in new books that continue to be published representing the different views on this debate. The problem is that many educators, astronomers, textbook publishers, etc., are treating the IAU decision as a dictate that does have to be followed. I'm trying to dispel that point of view.

If the controversy were limited to just me, books on the subject would not continue to be bestsellers, and public talks and debates on it would not draw the large audiences they continue to do.

I believe the IAU messed up in defining the term planet (they should never have even attempted this) and continue to compound their error by refusing to allow any further debate on this issue. That is why this year's General Assembly had an extremely poor turnout; several hundred astronomers who are IAU members boycotted because their attempts to get the discussion reopened were repeatedly rebuffed.

I apologize for sounding as though I am attacking you, which is not my intention. What is my intention is to repeatedly attack the notion that the IAU definition is somehow more legitimate than the opposing view. I see the comments section as a forum for discussion, which includes expressing dissent with something in the original blog post. That doesn't mean I would in any way interfere with your right to believe and say whatever you choose. Like many progressives in the US say, "I may not like what you say, but i will defend to death your right to say it."

And FYI, I do care very much about Goofy, and I have addressed this controversy on many other astronomy blogs as well.

Posted by Laurel Kornfeld on Saturday 07th Nov 2009 (18:09 UTC)

gravatarThis blog is more like my house than a town hall. I agree that you have the right to say things. Planets are obviously one of your hobby horses and that is fine. I just wish that didn't mean that I have to feel harassed in my home.

I do not think the IAU definition is "the truth", as you say is my bias, whatever that is supposed to imply. I've said several times over the years that it is a semantic decision and whether or not something is or isn't a planet has no bearing on the fundamental laws of the universe.

I've told you before that I started on the side of the planet definition including Goofy. Your harassment (and poor arguments) acted to make me against Goofy being a planet. I'm almost for doing away with 'planet' altogether just so that I'm not harassed about it again.

I'll hold out hope that you have interesting things to say that aren't about planets or the IAU.

Posted by Stuart on Saturday 07th Nov 2009 (20:53 UTC)

I'm sorry that you feel harassed; that's not my intention. And I did make a mistake; the sentence in question was the second sentence, not the first.

Whatever happened to your commitment to replace the name of a certain celestial body with the term "Goofy" in all comments. I kind of liked that and recommend you bring it back.

I'm sure I can come up with many interesting things to say, but my primary goal right now is to promote Goofy's planet status and that of all dwarf planets. I've actually gone back to school to study astronomy so I can take part in discussion with the professionals. And the arguments I present are certainly not "poor"; they are the same ones used by leading astronomers in the field.

Posted by Laurel Kornfeld on Sunday 08th Nov 2009 (08:17 UTC)

I think Jack Vance had the last word on naming planets. Worth quoting at length:

"The Rigel Concourse is Sir Julian's most noteworthy discovery: twenty-six magnificent planets, most of them not only habitable but salubrious, though only two display even quasi-intelligent autochthones....Sir Julian, exercising his prerogatives, named the planets for boyhood heroes: Lord Kitchener, William Gladstone, Archbishop, Rollo Gore, Edythe Macdevott, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Carlyle, William Kircudbright, Samuel B. Gorshame, Sir Robert Peel, and the like.

But Sir Julian was to be deprived of his privildege. He telegraphed ahead the news of his return to Maudley Space Station, together with a description of the Concourse and the names he had bestowed upon the members of this magnificent group. The list passed through the hands of an obscure young clerk, one Roger Pilgham, who rejected Sir Julian's nominations in disgust. To each of the twenty-six planets he assigned a letter of the alphabet and hurriedly supplied new names: Alphanor, Barleycorn, Chrysanthe, Diogenes, Elfland, Fiame, Goshen, Hardacres, Image, Jezebel, Krokinole, Lyonesse, Madagascar, Nowhere, Olliphane, Pilgham, Quinine, Raratonga, Somewhere, Tantamount, Unicorn, Valisande, Walpurgis, Xion, Ys, and Zacaranda - the names derived from legend, myth, romance, his own whimsey. One of the worlds was accompanied by a satellite, described in the dispatch as "an eccentric, tumbling, odd-shaped fragment of chondritic pumice", and this Roger Pilgham named "Sir Julian".

The press received and published the list and Rigel's planets became so known, though Sir Julian's aquaitances wondered about the sudden extravagance of his imagination. And who, or what, was "Pilgham"? Sir Julian presumably would explain upon his arrival.

The clerk, Roger Pilgham, presently returns to the obscurity from which he sprang, and there is no record of his conduct or state of mind as Sir Julian's return became imminent. Did he feel apprehension? Uneasiness? Indifference? Beyond all doubt he had become resigned to the prospect of discharge from his position.

In due course Sir Julian made a triumphant return, and in due course used the phrase, "most impressive perhaps are the New Grampian Mountains on the North Continent of Lord Bulwer-Lytton." A member of the audience politely asked the whereabouts of Lord Bulwer-Lytton, and the substitution was revealed.

Sir Julian's reaction to the deed was one of extraordinary fury. The clerk prudently went into seclusion; Sir Julian was encouraged to reintroduce his own nominations, but the damage had been done; Roger Pilghams brash deed caught the fancy of the public, and Sir Julian's terminology gradually faded from memory."

--- from Star King (1964)

Posted by Paddy on Tuesday 10th Nov 2009 (01:11 UTC)

gravatarIlluminati Sino-Zionists Columbia and the THUNDERS OF ZEUS

http://hellenandchaos.blogspot.com/2009/11/illuminati-sino-zionists-columbia-and.html

NASA (petrified with terror) observes the Fleet of the Dragonians and Andromedians

http://hellenandchaos.blogspot.com/2009/11/nasa-observes-fleet-of-draconians-and.html

Posted by ellhn on Tuesday 17th Nov 2009 (21:56 UTC)

Looks like a resourceful website! Thanks for sharing

Posted by Nursing Resume on Tuesday 16th Mar 2010 (12:16 UTC)

I think the average person/layman would find new exoplanets more intriging if we gave them names. Let the poetry of language sucker 'em in.

Posted by Dave B in MN on Tuesday 02nd Nov 2010 (11:17 UTC)

There no point renaming the planets, it's the parent star names that are the problem.

Using a letter for each planet in a system is fine.

Renaming the planets without renaming the parent star will just cause more confusion.

If any planet should become worthy of a dedicated name, we can decide that when it happens.

Posted by Chris on Monday 06th Dec 2010 (16:50 UTC)

thanks for providing such detailed information

appreciated

Posted by motherhood maternity on Saturday 31st Dec 2011 (16:19 UTC)

Im for naming them. Have the astronomers who first identify them assign a provisional name based on some naming conventions and then have an international committee select an alternate name if they find one objectionable. Naming them will help popularize the field in the eyes of the public and could only be a good thing.

Posted by David Dodge on Friday 03rd Feb 2012 (19:26 UTC)

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Posted by viagra on Thursday 13th Sep 2012 (10:51 UTC)

I recently purchased a name a staff is set and a have registered it this morning by filling in and posting needsin closed freepost registration card. I have since noticed that I might have registered it incorrectly. The card states that M84 database No is ISD0135728 . I have put on the registration card that M84 is in the consolation of Leo then I noticed that your star area coordination sheet states that M84 is in fact in Virgo (Vir) I hope that this error can be corrected without any inconvenience this as the gift set is a birthday present for my wife.

Posted by Charles seeney on Tuesday 22nd Jan 2013 (14:26 UTC)

gravatarCharles seeney, it looks as though you are talking about a name-a-star thing. Are you? I'm not sure why you've posted this message here as I'm not a name-a-star company. I have a very poor view of those sorts of companies and their practices.

Posted by Stuart on Wednesday 23rd Jan 2013 (10:03 UTC)

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Posted by hello on Sunday 24th Nov 2013 (15:50 UTC)

I believe that using the number system would keep away the offensive reaction that triggers other cultures. Of course it's annoying to try and remember a random order of letters and numbers especially the fact that they are so similar to other planets. But for your example of Uranus, those type of reasons would keep away problems and miscommunication.

Posted by Jennifer Gmeiner on Sunday 08th Dec 2013 (23:15 UTC)

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