William Shatner helps win bid for the public to name new planets

Posted on 17 August 2013
By Pierce King
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People are now being given the chance to choose names for new planets and moons for the first time after a campaign spearheaded by Captain Kirk actor William Shatner.

The International Astronomical Union, the normally stuffy body that governs the naming of astronomical objects, has adopted a new policy on how names are chosen.

Since the organisation was first established almost 100 years ago, it has selected the titles for celestial bodies by following strict rules.

Planets and moons in our own solar system, for example, are given names from Greek and Roman mythology.

Planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets, are given turgid sets of letters and numbers.

But after a public backlash following the IAU’s decision to veto attempts to name one of Pluto’s recently discovered moons after the planet Vulcan in Star Trek, the organisation has changed its stance.

The campaign to name Pluto’s moons after the home planet of a Spock, one of the characters in the long running science fiction series, was led by Star Trek actor William Shatner, who played Captain James T Kirk.

Now officials at the IAU have issued a new statement that openly invites public input in naming planets and moons in the future.

It said: “The IAU fully supports the involvement of the general public, whether directly or through an independent organised vote, in the naming of planetary satellites, newly discovered planets and their host stars.

“The IAU does not consider itself as having a monopoly on the naming of celestial objects – anyone can in theory adopt names the way they choose.”

There are currently around 800 planets that have been discovered outside of our solar system and there is a growing need to give them names.

Earlier this week IAU announced its shift in policy on its website, stating that it would now accept suggestion from members of the public via email.

But it has set out some rules in an attempt to ensure naming of planets does not completely descend into chaos.

These include ensuring names are composed of 16 characters or less, are preferably one word, are pronounceable in as many languages as possible and are non-offensive.

It has also banned anyone who might want to attempt to exploit the policy for some free advertising by ruling out names that are “commercial in nature”.

To avoid anyone attempting to use the heavens for political gain, the names of “individuals, places or events known for political or military activities” are also unsuitable, the officials said.

Finally they say that any names from works of fiction must not be subject to copyright royalties.
Lars Lindberg Christensen, spokesman for the IAU, said: “We have been looking at this so the public can be involved, provided the naming process fulfils some basic criteria.

“We value very much the public’s opinion and thoughts about these objects – the more the merrier if they are proposing good names.”

The IAU has been the official arbiter of planetary and satellite naming since it was established in 1919 in an attempt by astronomers to bring order the way celestial objects were named.

Previously they tended to be given a name by their discoverer, with the planets in the solar system being named after Greek and Roman gods.

Asteroids and comets have also generally been named by the person who discovered them, meaning they can often have more exotic names.

Tom Kerss, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, said: “I think the IAU is taking the right step in expanding its naming policy to include public suggestions.

“Although it has no bearing on the scientific value of its discovery, granting a planet or moon a common name helps to make it more identifiable as another world, rather than just a measurement.

“If anyone can contribute to our expanding picture of the galaxy in such a personal way, then we all have a reason to be more interested in these distant worlds.”