Astronomical union enlists people from 112 countries to help name exoplanets

An artist’s impression of two exoplanets orbiting a pair of red dwarfs. NASA / JPL-Caltech / T. Pyle / Sci-News.com

With an ever-growing number of exoplanets being discovered, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recently turned to the public for help with naming them all. The IAU created the NameExoWorlds project to collect suggestions from national campaigns in 112 countries, with a total of more than 780,000 people voting to name exoplanets and their host stars.

To assign objects to countries for naming, the IAU chose a planet orbiting a star that was visible from each country and bright enough to be observed through a small telescope. Then a national committee from each country collected name suggestions from the public, with the most popular options being voted on. The winning choices were then sent to the IAU for approval.

You can see a list of all of the final names chosen on the NameExoWorlds website. Perhaps surprisingly, there were no Boaty McBoatface-type naming trends, likely because names had to follow strict rules.

Many of the names chosen had special meaning to the cultures from which the suggestions came. Examples include a planet and star in the the constellation of Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs), which participants from Ireland suggested be named Bran (planet HAT-P-36b) and Turien (star HAT-P-36) after two dogs from the Irish fairy tale The Birth of Bran.

Another planet and its star in the constellation of Aquila (the Eagle) were named by the Jordan campaign after an ancient city and region in the country — Wadirum for planet WASP-80b and Petra for its star, WASP-80.

Other campaigns chose words from local languages for their names, such as the Malaysia campaign, which used the names for gemstones from the Malay language for planet Baiduri (HD 20868 b), meaning opal, and its star, Intan (HD 20868), meaning diamond. Terms from the indigenous Moqoit language were chosen by Argentina, which named a planet Naqaya (HD 48265 b), meaning brother or relative, and its star Nosaxa (HD 48265), meaning spring or new year.

The aim of the project was to encourage public interest in astronomy, and with the participation of over three quarters of a million people, it seems to have been a success.

“The IAU is delighted to see the broad international interest that this NameExoWorlds campaign has generated,” IAU President-elect Debra Elmegreen said in a statement. “It is gratifying that so many people across the globe have helped create a name for a planetary system that is meaningful to their culture and heritage. This effort helps unite us all in our exploration of the universe.”

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