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Who gets to name alien planets?

L. Calcada / IAU

An artist's conception shows an exoplanet and its twin suns, as seen from the surface of a moon.



A fledgling commercial venture called Uwingu stirred up an international controversy when it started soliciting friendlier names for planets beyond our solar system. The International Astronomical Union issued a statement saying that Uwingu's pay-to-play scheme has "no bearing on the official naming process," and that the IAU is the "single arbiter" on the names for all celestial objects.

But is it?

How about Tatooine? Or UGA-1785? Those are the casual nicknames sanctioned by NASA for a planet known officially as Kepler-16b, and a planetary system called Kepler-37 (although "UGA-1785" doesn't sound like much of an improvement over Kepler-37). It certainly looks as if nicknaming exoplanets is becoming a new frontier on the final frontier, regardless of what the IAU says.


The IAU may get into the act as well: The international organization says it will discuss the idea of having popular names for exoplanets this year. Meanwhile, Uwingu is sticking to its guns. "I think that it's really presumptuous of the IAU to think that they own the sky," one of the venture's founders, planetary scientist Alan Stern, told NBC News.

Paying to take part
One of the extra twists to the controversy is that Uwingu is using its exoplanet-naming contest as a fundraising tool. It costs $4.99 to put a name on the unofficial ballot, and each vote for a planetary name costs 99 cents. Uwingu plans to give half of the proceeds from its contests to space science and educational projects.

The current contest is aimed at coming up with a name for Alpha Centauri Bb, the exoplanet that's closest to our own solar system. Right now, the name leading the list is "Rakhat," a fictional planet made famous in "The Sparrow," Mary Doria Russell's spiritually minded sci-fi novel. Other names on the list include Sagan, Fraggle Rock and Ron Paul. The contest ends at midnight ET Monday.

The fact that people are paying to stuff an exoplanetary ballot box particularly rankled the IAU, which compared the scheme to the International Star Registry and the Lunar Embassy. This week's statement said the IAU "dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of selling names of planets, stars or 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."

That statement, in turn, rankled Uwingu's board of advisers, including University of Geneva astronomer Xavier Dumusque, who led the Alpha Centauri Bb discovery team.

"It is unfair to characterize this citizen participation in astronomical nomenclature as being anything like those organizations that purport to sell astronomical objects to the public," the advisers said in a statement emailed to NBC News. "Uwingu's mission is scientific and educational and directly benefits the space science community. It provides a means by which ordinary citizens can feel connected to and help support the discoveries of exoplanets that continue to excite and astonish the human imagination."

Planetary precedent
NASA is already doing that: Tatooine, for example, refers to a planet detected by NASA's Kepler telescope that orbits a binary star system — just like the fictional planet of the same name in the "Star Wars" saga.

UGA-1785 is of more recent vintage, paying tribute to the University of Georgia. "Knowing my UGA history, I knew that the light from this star began its journey toward the Kepler telescope in 1801, the same year that the Franklin College was founded and that classes began at UGA," Franklin College Dean Alan Hunter said in a news release announcing NASA's blessing for the name.

Closer to home, NASA uses the name "Mount Sharp" for the Martian mountain that's due to be the ultimate destination for the Curiosity rover, even though the IAU has named the peak "Aeolis Mons." The Sharp name pays tribute to the late Robert P. Sharp, a geologist who studied formations on Earth as well as on Mars.

Is there any harm in having Mount Sharp as well as Aeolis Mons? Or Rakhat as well as Alpha Centauri Bb? It might get confusing if there were lots and lots of names for the same exoplanet, but it's not a problem to have a friendly name as well as a scientific name for the same object. After all, if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it can also be an Anas platyrhynchos. And nobody get upset over having multiple names for the Whirlpool Galaxy, a.k.a. Messier 51a, a.k.a. NGC 5194.

But what do you think? Cast a vote in our survey (no charge!), and leave your comments below.

More about the 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. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.