Ever want to name your own planet? Soon, the general public will get the chance to vote on names submitted by public astronomical organizations for 305 hand-picked exoplanets, officially giving the first popular names to worlds outside of the Solar System. No, this isn’t one of those pay-money-to-name-a-star scams. The NameExoWorlds project has been put together by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the official and only body that can give names to celestial objects, in partnership with Zooniverse, home of some of the most successful citizen science campaigns.
How to name your own planet
The IAU has hand picked a list of 305 well-characterized exoplanets (that is, 305 planets orbiting a star other than our own whose existence is confirmed) in 260 systems discovered before December 31st, 2008. The list of planets includes details such as planet mass, current designation, and orbital period in addition to whether more than one planet has been discovered around the same star. One system has as many as five planets! Public astronomy organizations from high school clubs to planetariums can register with the NameExoWorlds project in order to submit a proposal to name a world. The organizations can only submit one name for one planet and are not allowed to gather suggestions from outside of the organization or to sell the rights to submit a proposal (don’t worry, no PepsiCo Planet or Tostito’s Presents: The Fiesta Planet).
The list does not tell whether or not the planet is Class M
How can you help?
You can already register at the NameExoWorlds website. As soon as the exoplanet name proposals star coming in from astronomical organizations, the IAU and Zooniverse will need your help to decide which ones to pick. That’s when they will call on their registered members (that’s you!) to start voting on names.
A history of naming things in outer space — A planet Vulcan?
This isn’t the first time the public have been called upon to name things in outer space (although, it is probably the first time anyone has gotten the chance to name something outside of the Solar System). The IAU recently asked the public to vote on names for Kerberos and Styx, two of Pluto’s smallest moons. When William Shatner heard about the contest, he immediately suggested adding the name “Vulcan” to the bunch. “Pluto is so big and cold that it deserved to have a hot little rock running around it, named Vulcan — for fire,” Shatner told CinemaBlend. But, despite his best efforts and the name winning by a landslide, the IAU said that they could not use the name Vulcan since another celestial body already carries that moniker — a theoretical planet that some hypothesized orbited our sun between Mercury and Venus in the late 1800s.
Star Trek fans have had it rough. First JJ blows up Vulcan and now SETI finds a loophole to deny it from coming back!
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) July 2, 2013
Perhaps some pioneering young club of astronomy enthusiasts can convince the IAU that, since their hypothetical planet Vulcan was a body postulated to exist within our own solar system, that giving that name to an exoplanet would be fair game. Your move, IAU.
Similarly, NASA has been holding contests for years to name things from space shuttles to Mars rovers. Those contest have had an important distinction, however. Anyone could submit a name. And, I mean anyone. Back in 2009, NASA had a similar contest to name one of the modules on the International Space Station (formerly known simply as Node 3). Unfortunately for NASA, acclaimed egotist Stephen Colbert got wind that something needed a name and encouraged viewers to suggest “Colbert”. Much to NASA’s chagrin, it worked; “Colbert” won by a landslide. But, NASA has a policy not to name things after living individuals and so avoided having to name their module after a television host. In honor of his valiant effort, however, NASA chose the designation ‘Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill,’ for a new treadmill headed to the ISS. That spells out COLBERT for those keeping track.
Lest we forget The Enterprise
And how could we forget the mother of all naming-things-in-space campaigns: the naming of Space Shuttle Enterprise. The shuttle was originally to be called Constitution in honor of its unveiling on Constitution Day, September 17, 1976. But, after a letter writing campaign to President Gerald Ford, Star Trek fans convinced the President and NASA to change the name to Enterprise. The space shuttle Enterprise is now retired and on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.