Naming Exoplanets

With next year being the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first planet orbiting a main-sequence star outside our Solar System, it’s exciting to think that the official naming of extrasolar planets (exoplanets) and their host stars is becoming a reality.

The International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Exoplanets for the Public Working Group, which includes astronomers Alain Lecavelier des Etangs, Chris Lintott (Zooniverse founder and PI ), Geoff Marcy, Andrew Cameron, Eric Mamajek, and Didier Queloz, have come up with a process approved by the IAU that will be implemented to allow the public to join in the naming of these distant worlds. The first set of 20-30 exoplanets and their host stars will be formally bestowed names in July 2015, just months before the October anniversary of 51 Pegasi b’s discovery.

Back in July the IAU announced the naming process and how the public will take center stage. Here’s a brief overview of what will happen over the next year. In September astronomy clubs and astronomy-related non-profit organizations will be able to register to take part in the naming process. These groups in October-December 2014 will vote to pick the first set of 20-30 exoplanets to be named from a list of 305 planets discovered before December 31, 2008. Then in December 2014, these clubs, groups, and organizations will submit naming proposals for the planetary systems (both the planets in them and the host star). Valid proposals will then be subject to a public vote in March of 2015. Anyone can vote at that point, and the most popular name will be bestowed as the formal name during the IAU General Assembly meeting in August 2015 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Like named minor planets in our Solar System, these exoplanets will still keep their license plate identifiers (like GJ 436 b) given at discovery as alternate designators , but their formal names will be the ones from the public vote.

One day in the future PH1b and PH2b will likely be offered a similar opportunity to be named. I fully expect when that happens that the Planet Hunters community will submit a proposal for their names. At this point, the Planet Hunters science team is fairly confident that Planet Hunters counts as an online non-profit astronomy organization and will be able to take part in voting on which systems should be named and submitting a naming proposal. Watch this space over the coming months for updates and further news as the IAU naming process gets underway.

You can learn more on the specifics and the rules and regulations of the exoplanet naming process at the IAU and Zooniverse’s NameExoWorlds website: http://www.nameexoworlds.org

(Full disclosure- I’m on the science teams for two astronomy/planetary science-based Zooniverse projects. I’m not involved in any way with creation or implementation of this IAU initiative, but I work with collaborators who are)

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3 responses to “Naming Exoplanets”

  1. Art says :

    I thought the first exoplanets were confirmed in 1992 not 1995.

    But I think these planets will never have as interesting names as fictional planets as they’re almost always named after something/someone.

    • Meg says :

      You’re right 1992 was the discovery of planets around a pulsar. 1995 was the discovery of a planet around a main-sequence star. I classified that point so there’s no confusion what I meant. Thanks for pointing that out.

  2. Paul Metcalfe says :

    Hi Meg,

    I am posting this as a bit of fun but it could be seriously considered.

    I was looking at your blog on Star & associated planet naming and thought – ‘what might be a good way of doing this IMPARTIALLY but with a bit of meaning’. The following would really only apply to the sky state at time of discovery due obviously to star movement over time.

    Each Star position of R.A & declination can be translated into Earth Latitude and Longitude and if that Earth position has a named landmark then that could form the Primary name. Of course there will be large areas such as the Oceans and deserts that star positions will translate to and you could theoretically have a whole bunch of Pacific’s and Sahara’s for instance. One answer to that would be to add a representation of the RA/Dec or Long/Lat to it. So if it corresponded to Earth Longitude 0 and Latitude 23.5 in the Sahara, it could be Sahara 0023. This assumes demarcation zones between whole degrees – in this case 0 to 0.99 and 23 to 23.99. The first one in that Zone could be Sahara 0023 Alpha and if the Latitude is negative it could be Sahara 00-23 Alpha. Mind you, if the planets were named using this star name, it would be ungainly. Just think of the fun the astronomers in 1000 years would have decoding the naming convention if all records were lost.

    Of course you could also use corresponding Long/Lat Landmarks on Planets and Moons in our solar system to get more choices.

    I know people want things named after themselves but I would prefer to visit the Star & Planets to make sure I was not getting a cess-pit of a planet with my name or of course it may no longer exist.

    Well that was fun.
    Paul

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