IAU balks at some Pluto names picked by New Horizons team

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Irritated that the New Horizons team did not consult with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) before it announced its proposed names for many Pluto features, IAU officials are now threatening to reject them once submitted.

“Frankly, we would have preferred that the New Horizons team had approached us before putting all these informal names everywhere,” said Rosaly Lopes, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is a member of the IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.

The group’s chair, Rita Schulz of the European Space Agency, said the New Horizons team has not yet submitted a formal proposal for naming features on Pluto and its moons. “Usually, there are always some features for which this process goes rather fast, some for which more checks and balances are required (which then takes a bit longer) and there are usually also some names or descriptors that cannot be approved and need to be replaced by others,” she told GeekWire in an email.

There has been a conflict between the IAU and the principal investigator for New Horizons, Alan Stern, for years now. Stern also runs the private company Uwingu, which offers citizens the ability to name unnamed craters on Mars for a fee, without asking the IAU. Stern, like myself, believes that the IAU’s claim that it is the only authority that can approve names for every object not on Earth is hogwash. Stern also strongly objects to the IAU’s decision to demote Pluto’s planetary status to a dwarf planet.

These comments by IAU officials suggest that they are being somewhat petty and are threatening to reject the New Horizons names to get back at Stern.


  • Matt in AZ

    I’m rather expecting Stern will never submit them to the IAU. Letting the media’s parroting of press releases work for him, his team can name everything they want and it will be accepted without question pretty much everywhere.

  • Phill O

    I like Stern already, just knowing he supports classification of Plutanoid planets! The response to the IAU should include sex and travel advice.

  • The people that planned, built and managed the mission should be able to name everything involved. Someone always wants to get credit for something they had nothing to do with. I call those people A..holes.

  • As much as we agree, calling them names is pointless and counterproductive. I also do not approve of this for commenters on Behind the Black. It can get you banned if it continues.

    Yesterday I had a very productive email correspondence with one of the members of the IAU working group that approves nomenclature. By being polite but firm and very honest, I was able to make her understand how badly the IAU looks by its holier-than-thou position. More important, she was willing to listen. Had I called her names in my initial email to her, she would have dismissed me out of hand and thus never heard my arguments in detail.

    You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

  • Edward

    Thank you, Robert, for communicating to the IAU that their actions, this century, are not going over very well with the public. If they get into a childish fight with a respected scientist, they are likely to look … well … childish.

    It is one thing for scientists to look unkindly on Pons and Fleishman for publicizing their cold fusion before it can be verified. It makes them look like they are charlatans, trying to live well on the French Riviera on the dime of some company that they conned into believing their non-discovery.

    It is something else to deny respected, hard working scientists their due when they make great discoveries merely because the press likes some of the names they have been calling some of their discoveries.

  • PeterF

    I thought whoever sees it first gets to name it…
    What would the IAU say about the name “The grand Tetons”? – named because of similarity to a girlfriend’s copious bosoms.
    My personal favorite place name is Tightwad Missouri. Next time I’m there I swear I’m going to open a checking account at the local bank.

    “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
    I believe horse manure works best bob.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *