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Who gets to name exoplanets? As efforts to officially christen alien worlds gets under way, it looks like Japanese astronomy fans will get the deciding vote.
Currently, planets outside the solar system are saddled with dull scientific designations like GJ 667 Cc or HD 40307 g. Last year the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the scientific body that oversees cosmic naming rights, announced its NameExoWorlds contest to give the public a chance to choose more evocative names for a handful of exoplanets out of more than 1800 discovered so far.
Rather than allow people to choose names directly, the IAU decided to enlist astronomy clubs and non-profit organisations from around the world to suggest names that would then be put to a public vote. This week the process has entered its first stage, in which the clubs will choose which 20 or so planets from a list of 305 will get names.
New Scientist's analysis of the 365 clubs currently signed up to NameExoWorlds reveals that 121 of them are based in Japan. This far outstrips the number of groups from any other country – the second most-represented nation, the US, only has 27. This suggests that although the whole world will get to vote on exoplanet names, the list of choices may be heavily determined by a single nation.
The IAU's general secretary Thierry Montmerle says they have extended the deadline for clubs to sign up, and hope to get wider participation. "The problem is not, why are there so many Japanese clubs, but rather why they are not more numerous elsewhere," he says. "In the case of the US, for example, the number is unexpectedly low, and for the moment we don't understand why."
You might think there are bigger things to worry about than naming alien worlds, but passions run high among space enthusiasts. In 2013 a public vote to name a newly discovered moon of Pluto after Vulcan, a planet from Star Trek, was overruled by the IAU for violating its naming guidelines, prompting disappointment from Star Trek actor William Shatner.
"Star Trek fans have had it rough. First JJ [Abrams] blows up Vulcan and now [the IAU] finds a loophole to deny it from coming back!" he tweeted.
Meanwhile, US-based start-up Uwingu has started selling the right to submit names for exoplanets, a strategy the IAU has criticised.
It's an issue set to get even more heated as our ability to detect these worlds improves. "Planets are places," says Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University in State College. "No one really cares what a too-faint-to-see star might be called by astronomers, but it's easy to be persuaded that places need names."
"I agree that no country should dominate the naming," says Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, who is part of the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope team. "I have always wanted to name each exoplanet with the word for 'peace' in different languages," he says. "Every language would have a voice in the heavens, expressing our greatest quest as a species."
If we ever manage to detect life on another planet, its name, however it is chosen, will go down in history books. Of course, its inhabitants may already have picked a name for it, in which case we would have to choose whether to use ours or thiers. "If, by some cosmic coincidence, aliens have a name for their home world, in the sense that we think of names, and if humans can pronounce it, I'm sure some people will try," says Wright.
originally posted by: intrptr
a reply to: JadeStar
Slippery slope that. if we let them name them all they might claim they own them one day, too. Space ship from earth plants flag and the Japanese cay no, we own it cause we named it, nyah.