IAU Speaks Out Against Planet Naming Site Uwingu
April 15, 2013

IAU Speaks Out Against Planet Naming Site Uwingu

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

A few months ago, a new space website opened up its doors for the public to start selecting the names of other planets. Now, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has stepped up and pointed out this isn't exactly the protocol for the scientific process of naming cosmic bodies.

Over 800 planets have been detected outside the Solar System so far, and thousands more are still waiting to be confirmed. Recently, the website Uwingu launched, inviting the public to purchase nomination proposals for exoplanets, and the rights to vote for the suggested names. The site said the Uwingu Fund will receive the bulk of the proceeds, some of which will go to fund space exploration, research and education.

With Uwingu's system, users pay $4.99 for a nomination, then another $0.99 to vote. The site doesn't have a limit on the number of nominations one person can support, and frequent users can purchase a volume discount on a block of names.

However, while the concept behind Uwingu is intriguing, IAU says it is misleading because these campaigns have no bearing on the official naming process. The IAU is an international astronomical organization of over 10,000 professional astronomers from more than 90 countries. It serves as the internationally recognized authority for assigning names to celestial bodies.

"They will not lead to an officially-recognized exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued," IAU said in a statement.

The organization said when exoplanets are discovered, they receive unambiguous and official catalogue designations that fall into a systematic order. It said although this "may seem boring," any naming system is a scientific issue that must work across different languages and cultures in order to support collaborative worldwide research and avoid confusion.

"To make this possible, the IAU acts as a single arbiter of the naming process, and is advised and supported by astronomers within different fields," the IAU said. "As an international scientific organization, it dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of selling names of planets, stars or even ℠real estate´ on other planets or moons. These practices will not be recognized by the IAU and their alternative naming schemes cannot be adopted."

It added it "greatly appreciates" the increasing interest from the general public in being more involved in the discovery of the Universe. IAU said it encourages astronomers and the public to keep using the existing accepted naming system. Names for exoplanets generally take after the star they surround, for example exoplanet Gliese 163c is named after its red dwarf star Gliese 163. This process is what helps to keep the hundreds and potentially thousands of exoplanets organized.

Uwingu issued a response to IAU's press release, saying that the organization mischaracterized its People's Choice contest and Uwingu itself.

"Uwingu affirms the IAU's right to create naming systems for astronomers But we know that the IAU has no purview–informal or official–to control popular naming of bodies in the sky or features on them, just as geographers have no purview to control people´s naming of features along hiking trails," the organization said. "People clearly enjoy connecting to the sky and having an input to common-use naming. We will continue to stand up for the public´s rights in this regard, and look forward to raising more grant funds for space researchers and educators this way."

Uwingu went on to say that there is no such thing as a unified astronomical naming system, using Polaris as an example. This star is also known as The North Star, Alpha Ursa Minori, HD8890, HIP 11767, SAO 308, ADS 1477, FK5 907, and more than a dozen other names. It also pointed out that even NASA and Harvard scientists have named astronomical objects without using IAU's process.

"Uwingu looks forward to continuing to help the general public to engage creatively in astronomy and to participate in the excitement of the exploration of the universe in which we all live," the organization said.