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Naming the exoplanets

Artist’s Concept — “Hot Jupiter” Around the Star HD 209458 Credit: NASA

By James Dacey

When the European Space Agency (ESA) recently announced the discovery of 32 new exoplanets, it struck me how quickly we can become numbed to the wonders of scientific discovery.

In 1995, astronomers generated a surge of excitement when they discovered the first planet to be orbiting a star other than our Sun. Over the past 14 years, astronomy has entered a dramatic new era with more than 400 of these exoplanets now officially catalogued. The recent launch of NASA’s Kepler mission and with ESA considering its ambitious PLATO project means that we may well have detected thousands of exoplanets within the next few years.

But as the discoveries now come thick and fast, have we becoming a bit blasé about exoplanets?

Well, one researcher in Germany has come up with an idea that could re-inject some of the initial excitement. Wladimir Lyra of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy is proposing that we give names to the exoplanets based on Roman-Greek mythology thus ditching the dry cataloguing that has led to planet names like MOA-2008-BLG-310-L b.

Of course, the reason why the International Astronomical Union came up with their scientific naming system is because the heavens may well be awash with exoplanets and it would soon become impractical to name every single one of them.

But as Lyra points out, every other class of astronomical body discovered to date has been given a name including the 15, 000 asteroids and minor planets.

“Our place in the cosmos is not special in any way, so there is no reason why only the planetary objects in the solar system should be named,” writes Lyra citing the Copernican Principle.

Lyra’s proposed system would assign names based on the mythological stories of the constellations. For example, the planets in Andromeda will be named after Andromeda’s myth and the planets in Hercules after Hercules’ myth. Inevitably, there are a few caveats to the system, which Lyra explains in his paper on the arXiv preprint server.

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  1. Donald Dunlop

    I agree that names would be a good thing; I’d disagree strongly at the above proposed system.
    I think such a thing would perpetrate the notion amongst the general public that somehow these random “constellations” we see are significant in some way. And they most assuredly are not. Our culture history and tradition of identifying these areas of the sky in the manner we do already propagates that mythology. It honors something that in my view is anathema to reason.
    Something more straightforward and logical is called for in order to honor reason above myth. Alpha-1, Beta-2, Delta-2b etc would be preferable. Allow the name designation to reflect proximity to us or something along those lines.

  2. jordimp

    I would strongly suggest to use also names from different cultures (e.g., Hindu, Chinese, that have a long astronomical tradition), as briefly mentioned by Lyra in his preprint. Staying only within Greek-Roman mythology would portrait a narrow Euro-centric perspective, that does not take into account that –re-phrasing Copernicus again– Europe’s place in this planet is not special in any way.

  3. tea

    Early cultures identifed celestial objects with gods and spirits. They related these objects (and their movements) to phenomena such as rain, drought, seasons, and tides. It is generally believed that the first “professional” astronomers were priests (Magi), and that their understanding of the “heavens” was seen as “divine”, hence astronomy’s ancient connection to what is now called astrology.

  4. Tequila

    I can’t see this ever happening.
    Astronomers haven’t even bothered to name dozens of bright stars visible to the naked eye that lie within 50 light years of Earth such as:
    HR1614, HR1925, HR1925, HR222, HR3384, HR4458, HR4523, HR4587
    HR511, HR5256, HR5553, HR5568, HR5864, HR6094, HR637, HR6426, HR6518, HR6806, HR683, HR7162, HR753, HR7578, HR7722, HR7722, HR8, HR8501, HR857, HR8832, HR9038.
    As a further travesty of the star naming process, some of the stars I listed are sometimes identified with up to a dozen different catalogue numbers.
    If astronomers can’t be bothered to name significant nearby objects like stars, then fat chance that they’ll go to the trouble of naming any exoplanets.


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