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Written in the stars: How an alien planet helped a man woo his true love

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An artist's conception shows Alpha Centauri Bb, the nearest known exoplanet. Will it end up being called "Amara," or "Tiber," or plain old Alpha Centauri Bb?



Zeb Gray thought naming an exoplanet after his girlfriend would be the perfect tribute to "the eternal love that we share for each other" — and whether or not the name sticks, the decision arguably changed his life. On Friday, Gray asked Amara Somers to marry him, and she said yes.

Did the fact that Gray proposed the name "Amara" for the planet now known as Alpha Centauri Bb have anything to do with the way his more personal proposal was received? "I think it weighed on her decision," Gray, a 25-year-old security guard from Carson City, Nev., told NBC News.


The planet-naming gap
Amara is currently the top vote-getter in Uwingu's online contest to give Alpha Centauri Bb, the closest-known exoplanet, a more mellifluous name. Traditionally, the International Astronomical Union has had the job of naming celestial bodies — but for now, the IAU has held off on setting up an exoplanet-naming system. Instead, astronomers refer to alien worlds using a combination of the star's name (for example, Alpha Centauri B) and a lower-case letter (which is where that second "b" comes from).

Uwingu, a space-themed entertainment venture, has stepped into the gap with a system that lets users suggest planet names for $4.99, and cast ballots for 99 cents a vote. Half of the proceeds will go to support space science and education projects.

The contest to rename Alpha Centauri Bb runs until April 15, and although the resulting name won't have any official standing with the IAU, Gray would love to see Amara win. "I'm glad to see it has a decent lead, but that could go away pretty quickly," Gray said.

Uwingu

Zeb Gray pays tribute to his fiancee, Amara Somers, with an online card as well as an exoplanet name suggestion.

It helps that Amara is also the name of a magical world featured in Graham Edwards' "Stone" science-fiction trilogy. In Edwards' books, Amara is also known as Stone. It's structured like a spiraling stone wall, and inhabited by hundreds of civilizations.

There's another contender with a strong science-fiction connection, and a high-profile backer to boot. The name "Tiber" is favored by Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who's the co-author of a 1977 sci-fi novel titled "Encounter With Tiber." The Tiberians hail from a planet in the Alpha Centauri, and that's one of Aldrin's selling points.

"Don't forget to vote for TIBER in the contest to replace the name for Alpha Centauri Bb," Aldrin told his nearly 800,000 followers in a Twitter update last week. As of this writing, Tiber is No. 17 on the charts with 35 votes — ranking below Amara as well as Heinlein, Pele, Sagan, Asimov and Ron Paul.

Wooed by a moon
Gray, who met Somers at the state agency where they both work four months ago, isn't the first guy to impress a woman by naming a celestial body after her. When Naval Observatory astronomer James Christy discovered Pluto's biggest moon in 1978, he proposed naming it "Charon" — not only because Charon was the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, but also because the name paid tribute to his wife, Charlene.

("Char" was Christy's pet nickname for his wife. In her honor, the name is often pronounced "Shar-on" rather than "Care-on, " which is the pronunciation associated with the Greek ferryman. That's one of the many fun facts you'll find in my book, "The Case for Pluto.")

Is it really worth all this fuss to give Alpha Centauri Bb a better name? Astronomer Xavier Dumusque, the lead author of the paper that announced the exoplanet's discovery last year, thinks so.

"I would definitively endorse the name for public outreach and lectures," Dumusque told NBC News in an email. "In astronomy, we have some chance to be able to make people dream, by showing a wonderful picture, by discovering new worlds. If someone is interested in astronomy, he should not face troubles to understand all the nomenclature. Therefore, giving memorable names for planets is one way to get more people interested in our wonderful research."

Do you agree? What names would you suggest? Check out the Uwingu list, and feel free to leave your suggestions as comments below.

More about the celestial name game:


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday.