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What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Rome and Juliet, William Shakespeare

When we think of the planets in our own solar system – the names  Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune come to mind. Each one we associate with its respective planet. I can’t think of Mars without invoking images of the Red Planet’s landscapes beamed back from Pathfinder, Opportunity, and Spirit. So what about exoplanets, do we get to name them like the ancient astronomers named the planets of our solar system?

One of the frequently asked questions we get at Planet Hunters: If I find a new exoplanet, can I name my new discovery? Before I answer that question, I wanted to explain how it works for our solar system. If there’s a new Kuiper belt object (KBO) or asteroid or moon, how does the naming process work? When you discover a potentially new solar system body, you send your observations to the Minor Planet Instant Payday Loans Center (MPC).  If the object is new, it’s added to their catalog of solar system bodies and gets a license plate number like 2007 OR10, 2011 FY9 or 2003 EL61. This license plate numbers  stays with the object forever, but once the orbit is secure, typically a few years worth of observations or less depending on the orbit,  the object gets a permanent number designation on top of the original license plate – At the point the discoverer can suggest a name for the object to the Minor Planet Center. The International Astronomical Union (IAU)  is the main body that deals with these matters and under their umbrella is the MPC, the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN), and the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN) . The WGPSN and the CSBN review the proposal and decide to accept the name or not for the new objects. Different types of  minor planets have different naming conventions and rules. Asteroids can be named for people while KBOs can’t. KBOs typically are named for death and creation deities.  You can read more about the IAU’s naming process here.

So, can we name newly discovered exoplanets? Planet Zooniverse anyone? Officially, no. There isn’t a body like the MPC, WGPSN,  CSBN in the IAU dedicated  to keeping  track of discoveries, organizing submissions, deciding  on the suggested names, and officially conferring names for exoplanets.  What happens now, when there’s a newly confirmed Kepler planet candidate?  Currently if an exoplanet can be confirmed via radial velocity measurements and is published in a peer-reviewed journal – it just gets the license plate number of the star with a letter after it with the letter  designating the order of discovery like – Kepler-9a, Kepler-9b, Gliese 151-c.

Will they eventually get real names like asteroids, moons, KBOs, and comets? Maybe in the future, the IAU will create such a body, until then we’re left with the license plate numbers. But that doesn’t stop us from giving unofficial nicknames that we can use to refer to the exoplanets we will discover with Planet Hunters.

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