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)