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Naming the Exoplanets

The International Astronomical Union is refusing to name the exoplanets. That seems unnecessarily curmudgeonly.

Since 1995, astronomers have found more than 400 planets orbiting other stars. And yet not one of them has a formal name, other than their orginal scientific designation such as MOA-2008-BLG-310-L b, (a sub-Saturnian mass planet recently detected in the Galactic Bulge). How come?

The official reason from the International Astronomical Union is that astronomers expect to find numerous exoplanets, so many in fact that it would be impractical to name them.

Today Wladimir Lyra at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany says this stance makes no sense. He points out that stars are even more common and it is indeed impractical to name them all but that hasn’t stopped us naming some of them.

The IAU’s stance seems difficult to justify, not least because it is unnecessarily curmudgeonly. There are good reasons for thinking that some of these exoplanets, perhaps many of them, will turn out to play significant roles in the history of astronomy, perhaps by helping us understand the nature of planets and the possibility that life may exist on some of them.

Lyra points out that some astronomers have begun using unofficial names for some planets but he wants to go further. He thinks they should all have names and has come up with one for everyone of the 403 exoplanets discovered to date.

Lyra’s scheme uses names from Greek and Roman mythologies, the same system used to name other heavenly bodies, such as planets stars and asteroids. He’s even explained the mythological significance of the names he has chosen.

So far example CoRoT-3 b becomes Cratos, WASP-6 b becomes Teucrus and HD 132406 b becomes Atlas. For the full list, see the paper.

That’s a creditable effort but surely we could all have a little more fun with an exoplanet naming system, perhaps by opening it up to the next generation of astronomers. What better way to inspire children interested in astronomy than by allocating planets to high schools around the world and asking the kids themselves what these bodies should be called?

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0910.3989: Naming the extrasolar planets

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