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Science

Science In Mind

Astronomers invite public to name exoplanets

An artist's concept depicts NASA's Kepler misssion's smallest habitable zone planet. Seen in the foreground is Kepler-62f, a super-Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a star smaller and cooler than the sun, located about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra.

AFP PHOTO / NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech

An artist's concept depicts NASA's Kepler misssion's smallest habitable zone planet. Seen in the foreground is Kepler-62f, a super-Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a star smaller and cooler than the sun, located about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra.

For years, the catalog of planets beyond our solar system has been filling up. There are the rocky, Earth-sized planets, the Jupiter-like gas giants, and every size between, from mini-Neptunes to super-Earths.

The hunt for these exoplanets is a scientific project that easily captures the public imagination because it holds the tantalizing prospect that there are other habitable worlds out there. But despite the curiosity-stoking quest, the names of the exoplanets identified have, up until now, been anything but evocative. They are known by dry scientific labels such as HD 185269 b, Kepler-20f, or Gliese 581b.

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No longer. This month, the International Astronomical Union, the nearly century-old organization that gives names to celestial objects, announced plans to crowdsource the naming of new planets and their suns, announcing a contest to Name ExoWorlds.

Naturally — as might be expected when it comes to determining the names of a whole other world — there is a long list of rules and restrictions. Keep it to one word, keep it pronounceable, keep it tasteful, and no pet names, please. For full guidelines on how to name a planet and how not to, see the full rules.

There are 305 exoplanets in 260 solar systems on the list, ranging from iota Draconis b, weighing in at some 2,800 times more massive than Earth, to the rather more slight GJ 436 b in the constellation Leo.

The naming process will unfold according to a well-defined process; individual people are not actually being asked to coin new planetary names, but to vote on the best from a crowdsourced planetary name book.

Astronomy clubs and nonprofit organizations interested in naming exoworlds can register to do so online. They will vote on which worlds they would like to name and, in December, they will be asked to submit their proposed planetary sobriquets. Each group will be allowed to name only one world, and will be asked to make the case for its name.

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Next March, anyone will be able to vote on the proposed names on the Internet, with new planets ready to be christened next August.

The new names will not supersede the scientific names, similar to species that are known both by common names and Latin names usually used only by biologists.

But the project leads to the natural philosophical question: Who has the authority to name bits of our universe? If a child wants to call a star she spots in a telescope “Snoopy,” who is to stop her?

“The IAU does not consider itself as having a monopoly on the naming of celestial objects — anyone can in theory adopt names the way they choose,” the IAU wrote in a document released last year laying out some of the guidelines for naming planets. “However, given the publicity and emotional investment associated with these discoveries, worldwide recognition is important and the IAU offers its unique experience for the benefit of a successful public naming process.”

Clubs can register to submit names and members of the public can register to vote at NameExoworlds.org.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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