Tag Archives: Alan Stern

IAU balks at some Pluto names picked by New Horizons team

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.

Alan Stern gives the IAU a piece of his mind

New Horizons’ principle investigator yesterday told the International Astronomical Union what he thinks of their definition of a planet:

“It’s bulls—,” he told Tech Insider (and said we could quote him on that).

The problem, Stern said, is that the reclassification largely stemmed from the opinions of astronomers, not planetary scientists. His beef here is that astronomers study a large variety of celestial objects and cosmic phenomena, while planetary scientists focus solely on planets, moons, and planetary systems.

“Why would you listen to an astronomer about a planet?” Stern said. He compared it to going to a podiatrist for brain surgery instead of a brain surgeon. “Even though they’re both doctors, they have different expertise,” Stern said. “You really should listen to planetary scientists that know something about this subject. When we look at an object like Pluto, we don’t know what else to call it.”

Stern’s opinion is not unique among planetary scientists. I have interviewed many, and read reports by others, which consistently say that they object strongly to the IAU’s definition. To them, if a object has enough mass to force it into a sphercial shape, it is a planet.