Astronomers are discovering a lot of planets these days. The official count is 800+, with thousands of more candidates (unconfirmed but suspiciously planet-like).
Right now we give them alphabet soup names. Alpha Centauri Bb. HR 8799b (through HR8799 e). And of course, everyone’s favorite, 2MASS J04414489+2301513b.
These catalog names are useful but less than public friendly. In science fiction we get Vulcan, Psychon, Arrakis, and other cool names. So why not in real life?
The folks at Uwingu asked themselves this very thing. Uwingu (pronounced oo-WIN-goo) is an astronomy and space startup company that’s looking to fund scientific research and exploration. I wrote an intro to Uwingu back when it was soliciting funds to get initially rolling. (Happily, that goal was met.) The idea is to sell goods and services to space enthusiasts and use the proceeds toward doing real science. The folks in charge are professional astronomers and space scientists at the tops of their fields, people like Alan Stern and Pamela Gay. Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Advisors for Uwingu, an unpaid position, but I’d write about it and support it anyway. These are top-notch scientists behind the project.
What does this have to do with the letter and number salad that is the current state of exoplanet names? As their first foray, the folks at Uwingu decided to let people create a suggested names list for these planets. For 99 cents a pop, you can submit a name you like to the database, and for another 99 cents you can vote for your favorite in the current list. I’ll note these names are not official—they are not assigned to specific planets, and only the International Astronomical Union can make these official. (And mind you, they’re the ones who so elegantly handled the Pluto not being a planet issue—yes, that’s sarcasm.) But, these names will be seen by planetary astronomers, and eventually those planets are going to need names. Why not yours?
I think this is a fun idea. There are currently nearly 100 names in the database as I write this, but it’s expected to grow rapidly. If you think there should be a Q’onoS, Abydos, or even Alderaan—in memoriam, of course – then head over to Uwingu.