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Naming planets by popular vote

Interview: Carla Bleiker
February 9, 2015

The International Astronomical Union is inviting hobby astronomers to vote on names for 20 new exoplanets. They also want suggestions. From literary characters to movie names - almost anything goes.

Artistic rendering of an exoplanet. (Image: picture alliance/ dpa/ ESO/ L. Calcada)
Image: picture alliance/dpa/ESO/L. Calcada

DW: Dr. Montmerle, how does the "Name ExoWorlds Contest," in which 20 systems of exoplanets and their stars will receive names, work?

Thierry Montmerle: In phase one we posted 305 exoplanet systems, each with up to five exoplanets, on our site, along with some data about them.

We can't expect all of them to be named. But now in phase two, this is where amateur organizations get involved. They can get registered and make a list with their favorite exoplanet systems and from these, we pick the 20 most popular. This is the phase that we are in right now, which goes till February 15.

These 20 systems are the ones open for the naming contest. Phase three is the name proposal process, the one that will last the longest, until May. The groups will have to fill out forms where they put their chosen names for the stars and planets in the systems and also their justification: why is this a coherent set of names, why is this interesting and original.

The final phase is where all citizens come in. The suggestions will be posted on the web. Everybody who registers on a citizen science site called Zooniverse can download the proposals and then vote for their favorite names. Final results will be announced at the IAU [International Astronomical Union] General Assembly in Honolulu in August.

How did you come up with the idea to have clubs and groups suggest names for exoplanetary systems?

Thierry Montmerle. (Photo: private)
Thierry Montmerle wants members of the public - non-astronomers - to get involved in spaceImage: Privat

We had a debate and decided the public should be lured into exoplanet naming. At the time there was this question of who should name the exoplanets and how. We had experience with individuals proposing names, we had opened our door to that. A significant number of people were proposing owns.

We asked associations, because we think that having people talk together has educational value. They then propose things that are really the product of brainstorming in a group. The starting point of our thinking was amateur astronomer associations or clubs, because they are in a way our customers, and they were a great help with the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. But there are other kinds of people who might have an interest in the sky, too, who are not strictly astronomical: people interested in the history of astronomy, philosophical or even religious interests. We wanted them to be involved as well.

What kind of names do you expect? Are there certain rules about what names aren't allowed?

We're not expecting any particular answers. We will see what comes in. We have a preference, or it may also be a bias, to promote cultural names, names that represent a section of the world population. But to be clear, none of the exoplanets in our sample now are considered habitable.

There are some rules. You cannot give full names of living people, or of dead people who were involved in acts of war… There's a whole list that's used for naming objects in the solar system as well. It's been around for decades.

If the names of artists or something artistic like that wins, in the end we would have to worry about copyright. This can be a very touchy issue. If any names are subject to this, because they are for instance characters of novels, then probably the IAU would have to negotiate with the copyright holder. I'm sure there will be planets named after Star Wars. If that's a winner, then we would go to George Lucas and say "George, people who are big fans are proposing names [from your films] for exoplanets, please let us use them for free." I'm sure he would be delighted.

Why are you having this public contest at all - what was the motivation of the IAU to get people involved?

We want the public to share our passion for new worlds. I would even say it's a passion for life.

Thierry Montmerle is and astronomer and has been general secretary of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) since 2012. His three-year-term comes to an end this August at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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