Publicly Selected, or “Popular” Names
How it works: Although not everything’s been worked out, the main idea is that the general public or a group, guided by public feedback, approves of popular names for exoplanets for use alongside the original scientific designations. The respective leaders of the IAU and Uwingu, the major players in this arena, hold very different views on the matter.
“We have to be very selective on the quality of the names,” Montmerle says. “The names should stand the test of time and not be your neighbor’s girlfriend’s name, but something that reflects something really deep within humanity.” Montmerle envisions everyday folks working with local astronomy clubs to submit thoughtful name proposals with broad appeal. The professional astronomers of the IAU Commission in charge of exoplanets would then review the suggestions and ratify the most appropriate or best-sounding. Even something pop-cultural like “Alderaan” from Star Wars could end up passing muster (assuming no trademark issues). “I see no big problem with that,” Montmerle says. “Star Wars, after all, is part of our culture.”
Uwingu’s Stern frowns upon this sort of bureaucracy. Instead, he says that naming should operate on a “first come, first serve” basis. “We feel it should be open to the people of the Earth to name exoplanets anything they like as long as it’s not pejorative, prejudiced, insulting or profane,” Stern says. Given the likely billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way alone, Stern does not feel that any one planet has to be sanctified with some hallowed name. Family members, coworkers, sports teams and commercial brands are all fair game. “If United Airlines wants a planet, let them have it,” he says. “Get over it. They have one in a hundred billion.” To prove the point, the winning entry in Uwingu’s Alpha Centauri Bb contest last year was “Albertus Alauda,” a Latinized version of a participant’s grandfather’s name.
Montmerle says the IAU will continue working toward a solution, but he cautions: “I think we are still a far cry from having found any valid method.”
The pros: Informal names for astronomical objects are common and have stood alongside official IAU names. Examples include the Milky Way for our galaxy, Mount Sharp for the official Aeolis Mons on Mars and Polaris for a star with dozens of recognized astronomical names, including, as most people would call it, the “north star.” Popular naming would engage the public with astronomy in a whole new way, Stern argues, “and I think that’s crazy exciting.”
The cons: Public naming involves the risk of a vocal few “winning” to the disgust of virtually everyone else. Uwingu’s monetary model has also drawn criticism. “When you combine anyone naming planets by whatever way they want and actually paying to do that, you end up with bad names,” says Lyra. “I think naming should be given to a committee that cares about nomenclature.”
NASA’s Borucki is also skeptical of public naming, especially of potentially habitable worlds. “Leave the scientific name as is,” he says, “until the people on that planet tell you what they want it to be called.”