Uwingu’s exoplanet-naming contest ruffles official feathers

This artist's concept shows the newfound alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb, found in a three-star system just 4.3 light-years from Earth.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how science-funding group Uwingu was hosting a contest to pick a public name for the closest exoplanet found to us — Alpha Centauri Bb. The announcement of the contest asks people to "ruffle some feathers" in order to get the word out, but it looks like they've also ruffled the feathers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the group officially in charge of naming astronomical objects.

An IAU press release issued on Friday, April 12th, states: "Recently, an organization has invited the public to purchase both nomination proposals for exoplanets, and rights to vote for the suggested names. In return, the purchaser receives a certificate commemorating the validity and credibility of the nomination. Such certificates are misleading, as these campaigns have no bearing on the official naming process — they will not lead to an officially-recognized exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued."

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That's all well and good, as the IAU is the only organization currently recognized as having the 'right' to name astronomical objects, but there's a problem with their statement.

Nowhere did Uwingu state that the winning name would have any validity or credibility. The person who nominated the winning name does get a commemorative plaque (in addition to a call from Uwingu CEO Alan Stern and Uwingu advisor Geoff Marcy, a subscription to Astronomy magazine and their picture on the Uwingu website), but it doesn't hold any official clout and Uwingu isn't claiming it does. It's the planet-naming equivalent of having a Justice League membership card. To quote a well known fictional experimental physicist on the subject, "that doesn't prove I know Batman."

According to SPACE.com, Alan Stern responded to the IAU's statement by saying: "The IAU can't prohibit what it does not control. People's Choice naming contests and the colloquial naming of objects in space are unrelated to the IAU's purview of specifying nomenclature for astronomers. The IAU no more owns the right to control the naming of objects in space for popular purposes than does a county that controls street naming have the right to deny people in the county the right to adopt a mile of highway in someone's honour."

A previous contest, to give more appropriate names to the latest of Pluto's 5 moons, was organized by SETI — the Search for Exta-Terrestrial Intelligence — and the names that received the highest votes (Vulcan and Cerberus) were submitted to the IAU for approval. So, I'll grant that it's possible that the public, including whoever wins the Uwingu contest, may think that this name for Alpha Centauri Bb will also be submitted for approval, but whereas SETI specifically stated in their contest that the names chosen would be suggested to the IAU, there's no mention in the Uwingu contest. So, making that assumption would be a bit of a stretch, and it certainly wouldn't be due to anything Uwingu did or said.

I won't fault the IAU for at least covering that possibility, but their approach seems a little heavy-handed.

Will they object when we discover an alien civilization living on Gliese 667 Cc, and that civilization calls their planet Krr'sll'trmm? Will the IAU insist that our new alien friends observe the official name that they approved? Precedent has been set, after all, since it's doubtful that Vulcans knew anything about Greek mythology to name themselves and their planet after one of Earth's old gods, but that's still the name they go by in the Federation.

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No, I don't honestly believe that the IAU would do either of those things. My point is that this is a bit of harmless fun that has no bearing on what the IAU does.

As a scientist, I agree with the IAU that there should be standards for these sorts of things, but this contest isn't forcing them to change what they do. It's just making the science a bit more fun by emulating science fiction, while also raising money for science research and education. Where's the harm in that?

Update: Due to this whole 'incident', Uwingu has extended the naming contest until Monday, April 22nd. You can still nominate or vote for names for Alpha Centauri Bb until then.

(Image courtesy: European Southern Observatory)

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