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A planet by any other name


 
A planet by any other name

Galaxy Picture Library/Alamy/Getstock

With monikers like HD 178911 Bb, the names handed out for the more than 800 “exoplanets” that have been discovered by astronomers beyond our solar system don’t exactly conjure up images of exotic alien worlds. And the International Astronomical Union seems intent on keeping it that way. The IAU, which represents more than 10,000 professional astronomers in 90 countries, raised eyebrows recently when it lashed out at groups offering the public the chance to help rename an exoplanet or two, saying in a terse statement that “such schemes have no bearing on the official naming process.”

The verbal beat down appeared directed at crowd-sourcing company Uwingu, founded by American planetary scientist Alan Stern. Uwingu was advertising the chance to rename the recently discovered Alpha Centauri Bb, which orbits one of the two stars in the nearby Alpha Centauri system. It charged $4.99 to nominate a new name and $0.99 to vote on a winner (the leading contenders so far are Rakhat and Caleo).

Uwingu, for its part, argued that people can call exoplanets whatever they want—like they do with Polaris (Alpha Ursae Minoris), also commonly known as the North Star or Pole Star. A further twist: there is no official list of exoplanet names, or even stars. Rather, according to Popular Science, there are several celestial catalogs, each with their own naming practices recognized by the IAU. The bottom line? Earthlings seem destined for unnecessary confusion in the event of an alien invasion.


 
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