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) | Permalink

Why are people L-CROSS?

While I wait for some code to run, I couldn't help notice the outcry on Twitter about the imminent impact of LCROSS with the Moon. People seem confused, angry and upset.

LCROSS is a relatively cheap mission that was launched along with LRO in June following design, development and construction over the previous few years. Today's impact with crater Cabeus, near the Moon's south pole, will give us definitive measurements of water within a permanently shadowed crater. There is great science to be done and we'll add to the recently announced results from India's Chandrayaan-1. So why are people upset?

A big reason people are upset seems to be a response to a particular choice of words being used on Twitter. LCROSS is being referred to as a "bomb" and NASA as "waging war on the Moon". It isn't a bomb as it isn't packed with explosives. Using the word "impactor" doesn't have the same emotional impact though. In reality, LCROSS and the Centaur rocket that took it to the Moon are not much different from the countless space rocks that have hit the Moon over the past 4 billion years creating the crater-pocked surface we see today. If anything, the Moon has been hit by many larger objects than LCROSS in the past and survived (update at 11:56 am: Chris North points out that impacts with the size and energy of LCROSS happen to the Moon about 4 times per month!). It takes a lot to have a large affect on something as big as the Moon and LCROSS is just too puny to do that. But the word "bomb" resonates with people and they rightly suggest that "waging war on the Moon" is a waste of money. That would be a waste of money and, thankfully, nobody is doing that.

With the perceived negative reason for the LCROSS impact, people have started to complain about the cost of the mission. This perceived "waste of money" in space is something I've written about before when pointing out that the money is actually spent down here on Earth. Spending money "on space" produces many things we rely on day-to-day and has some more suprising benefits too.

An interesting thing about the complaints is the comparisons people generally make. My experience in the past and today, is that people compare the cost of these missions to things such as starving children and finding cures for cancer. These are incredibly worthwhile causes and, in a strange way, show how far up people have to set the bar to give an example of a better use of our collective money. I'm not sure the last time I heard the excessive wages of a Premiership footballer held up against starving children or people demanding that the money spent on Hollywood action movies be diverted into cancer research.

Although the worthy comparisons are reassuring, this shouldn't make people who do astronomy or space science feel complacent. We should be justifying why we do this sort of research, and why it is important, to everyone. That includes the scared and confused people on Twitter as well as the people who already know why.

Europe isn't best placed to see the impact as the Moon is either set or too low. However, you can watch the impact on NASA TV.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 09th Oct 2009 (11:53 CEDT) | Permalink
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