Buying exoplanet names?

I awoke early today for travel reasons and in the process noticed quite a few comments online about an International Astronomical Union (IAU) press release. The IAU is the main international standards body for astronomy and they have said that you can't buy an exoplanet name. This statement matches their stance on the commercial naming of stars and is part of their general policies on naming astronomical objects. This latest statement seems to be considered controversial and that, itself, is interesting.

Most astronomers (IAU members or not) are agreed that the names of stars and other astronomical bodies are not for sale and should be agreed upon. This is mostly to avoid the confusion from any one object getting lots of different proper names† or the same name as something else. After centuries of Roman/Greek/Arabic/Shakespearean bias it is also to ensure that all the world's cultures are represented in the names not just those favoured by Europeans‡.

The current controversy appears to be due to Uwingu which ran a competition to suggest names for planets. Uwingu is run by planetary scientist Alan Stern who is the principal investigator for the exciting New Horizons mission to Pluto. I was aware that the competition existed (and that William Shatner campaigned to get his name suggestion to win) but hadn't realised, until reading Ian O'Neill's article, that it required payment to take part in the poll. Aside from the biases of X-factor-style popularity contests, I also worry about the financial aspect even though the money goes to the admirable goal of funding planetary science and outreach. Even at USD 0.99, this system inherently favours names preferred by those living in the richer parts of the world such as Europe and North America. This just seems to reassert the cultural dominance of those regions.

I wasn't taking all this too seriously until I saw the comments from Alan Stern who equates the IAU to a "15th Century European academic club" and states that the IAU "claim that they own the Universe". The IAU don't own the Universe. They are simply an international standards body much like the ITU. We can choose (as astronomers) to either follow internationally approved polices or not. Following them provides some form of consistency making finding particular objects in academic papers and databases easier. Given Alan Stern's previous vocal criticism of the IAU (which I hear about via Laurel Kornfeld) over Pluto becoming a dwarf planet, it looks like some of that may be mixed up in this. Either way, as I've previously said, I am in favour of more varied exoplanet names.

† Currently stars can have one proper name but also be in many different catalogues with different IDs. Thankfully, most of the catalogues follow different naming conventions meaning that the IDs are mostly unique between catalogues and can be matched up for the purposes of efficiently mining the astronomical literature/data.

‡ These days, each type of astronomical body has a different naming

convention. Comets get the name of their discoverer(s). Asteroids often

take the names of scientists, astronomy communicators and celebrities.

The (dwarf) planets found in our solar system in recent years have taken

the names of creation gods from various cultures. Prominent mountains

on other planets also have a naming process. There is (was?) even a

committee (which, I note, was split 50/50 between Americans and Russians

at the IAU general assembly in 2000) to decide the names of craters.

This standards-body-based method of naming has been going on for the

best part of 100 years.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 13th Apr 2013 (08:10 AEST) | Permalink

Observatory Drive

I'm currently in Australia's Gold Coast on holiday. Today, in a cafe, I overheard someone mention a road called Observatory Drive. I'm not aware of an observatory in this part of Australia so I'm not sure how it got the name. Looking on a map I noticed that it is surrounded by other streets sharing the theme so perhaps one of the developers had an interest in astronomy. I found Palomar Street, Leiden Street, Lowell Street, Molongolo Close, Parkes Court and Jodrell Court all named after famous astronomical observatories. There are some other space themed streets in the same area. See how many you can spot.

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This isn't the only space-themed cluster of streets in this part of Queensland. A couple of miles north west of this patch you'll find another group consisting of Milky Way, Eclipse Court, Constellation Crescent, Equinox Court, Sun Court, and Twilight Drive.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 11th Apr 2013 (21:54 AEST) | Permalink
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