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A new International Astronomical Union contest will give us all a chance to name exoplanets and the stars they orbit around

Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 3:39 PM - Last spring, there was something of a kerfuffle between space science educators and funders Uwingu and the International Astronomical Union, over who has the right to officially name the growing number of exoplanets we're discovering beyond our solar system. Now, in response to the interest they saw in the Uwingu contest, the IAU has now come out with their own, called Name ExoWorlds.

Some of the aliens worlds we've discovered so far have names that aren't too bad - Tau Ceti e, Fomalhaut b, Kapteyn b. However, most exoplanets have names that are a lot more unwieldy or even confusing. How many Glieses have we heard about so far, or Keplers, or HDs, CoRoTs, HATSs, OGLEs, or WASPs?

They come by these names in a very logical way, going by the name of the astronomical catalogue they came from or the telescope survey that detected them, then the specific number of the star from the catalogue or survey, and then a letter code based on what order they were found - first planet found there is b, second is c, etc (the star is technically the 'a' in the system). Therefore, you get names like Gliese 667C c (also GJ 667C c) for the second planet discovered around the third star of the 667th star system listed in the Gliese Catalogue of Nearby Stars, or Kepler-62 e, which is the fourth planet found around the 62nd star in the survey being conducted by the Kepler Space Telescope. Also, it's a good thing the Kepler mission effectively renamed those worlds, since that particular star went by the name 2MASS J18525105+4520595 in the 2MASS catalogue.

However, as these planets become more of a public feature, especially when they're nearby and potentially habitable, it would definitely be better for them to have easier names - ones that are more memorable and distinct to each individual planet.

Last year, science-funding group Uwingu held a contest with this very idea in mind, specifically to rename Alpha Centauri B b, a hypothetical super-Earth planet that was detected in orbit around one of the stars in the next solar system over from ours. Although the contest was not, in any way, meant to represent anything official regarding this planet, and the proceeds from the contest went directly into helping the group fund more science and science education, it still ruffled some feathers with those that are responsible for officially naming objects in space - the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Regardless of that, the contest concluded with the planet being named Albertus Alauda, chosen by one voter to honour his grandfather.

Later in the year, the Union released a proposed set of new rules about public naming of planets and their moons, asking anyone that hosts a contest of that kind to work with the IAU, rather than doing it on their own, and now they are hosting their own contest, along with the citizen science group Zooniverse, to name several of the confirmed exoplanets that are currently found in astronomical databases.

According to their website, here's how the contest will work:

1. July 2014: a  list of 305 exoplanets, in 206 different star systems, which were discovered before the end of 2008 (collectively named ExoWorlds), has been selected and published on the NameExoWorlds.org website
2. September 2014: Astronomy clubs and non-profit organizations interested in naming these ExoWorlds can register on the website
3. October 2014: The registered clubs or non-profit organizations will vote for the top 20 to 30 of this list of ExoWorlds that they wish to name
4. December 2014: Each club or non-profit organization sends in a proposal to name one ExoWorld from the list and its star, following the rules in the IAU Exoplanet Naming Theme, and with a detailed supporting argument for their choice
5. March 2015: The general public votes on the names for each planet and star.
6. July 2015: The IAU wraps up the contest and validates the names with the most votes.
7. 3–14 August 2015: The results are announced at a special public ceremony held during the IAU XXIX General Assembly in Honolulu, USA.

This is a lot different than the Uwingu contest, in which anyone could pay $9.99 to propose a name and then 99 cents to vote for a favourite, and with good reason. The final name from the Uwingu contest wasn't the best of them, at least from the perspective of someone who's read a lot of science fiction, but it most certainly wasn't the worst ("No More Taxes"? "OoRah"? "Mitt Romney"? We can do better than that). Having astronomy clubs and organizations collectively come up with the proposals is definitely a way to filter out the sillier options and have some really serious (and no doubt seriously cool) names to vote on next year.

It should be noted that, since the planets chosen for the list are from those discovered before 2009, they are mostly larger planets, such as the largest super-Earths and gas giants, and they don't include any potentially-habitable worlds. Prof. Abel Méndez, director of the Planetary Habitability Lab at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, said over Twitter: "The first discovered potentially habitable exoplanet is now Gliese 667C c," which was detected in 2012, "after ignoring the first false-steps Gliese 581 d and g," he added (as those two planets were recently revealed to potentially be anomalies from the star, rather than actual planets).

Still, this is a place to start, and perhaps if this contest goes well, it can become a regular feature with the IAU, until we've given all of the exoplanets we find seriously cool names.

To participate in the contest, sign up, either with your club or organization, or as an individual for voting, at NameExoWorlds.org.

If you'd like to participate in citizen science projects, involving astronomy, climate science, history, nature or biology, check out the various projects available on Zooniverse.org.

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