Tag Archives: IAU

Scientists propose new planet definition that reinstates Pluto

Unhappy since 2006 with the definition of “planet” imposed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that demoted Pluto, planetary scientists, including New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, have now proposed a new definition that they think is more appropriate and would reinstate Pluto.

The scientists suggest planets should constitute as “round objects in space that are smaller than stars,” thus excluding white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes from the planetary status. “A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters,” the proposal elaborates, noting that the Earth’s moon would constitute as a planet under the new definition.

Stern and his colleagues note that the IAU’s definition of a planet is too narrow and recognizes planets only as objects that orbit our sun and “requires zone clearing, which no planet in our solar system can satisfy since new small bodies are constantly injected into planet-crossing orbits.”

Make sense to me as well as a lot of people. The definition created in 2006 was never very satisfactory, and I know many planetary scientists who have never accepted it.

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.

New Horizons team proposes cool names for Charon and Pluto features

In anticipation of their discovering many previously unseen features on both Pluto and Charon, the New Horizons science team released today a proposed list of names, including “Kirk”, “Spock”, and many other fictional science fiction characters.

Many of these suggestions were proposed by the public. Personally, I prefer the part of their proposal where they suggest naming features after real people, like Lewis Carroll and Arthur Clarke.

IAU contest to name 20 exoplanets moves forward

Under pressure from many circles to open up its processes for naming objects in space, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has started a contest to allow non-profits and “registered clubs” to compete to name 20 exoplanets.

Each organisation can submit one naming proposal, for one ExoWorld only. The number of names that need to be submitted depends on which system is selected. For single- and multiple-planet systems, a name for each planet must be submitted, as well as one for the host star. In the 20 ExoWorlds list, five stars already have common names. Consequently, these five stars cannot be considered for public naming. There are 15 stars and 32 planets (47 objects in total) available for naming. The name of the 20 host stars are explained and personal messages from some discoverers are also available here.

To participate in the contest, clubs and non-profit organisations must first register with the IAU Directory of World Astronomy. The deadline for registrations has been extended to 23:59 UTC on 1 June 2015.

You will note that this contest is not open to the public, but to clubs and organizations that the IAU approves. This is typical of the IAU, which wants to retain its power to name everything in space. They are thus keeping this whole process close to the vest and tightly controlled.

In the end it won’t matter, as the names will eventually be chosen by those who go there, or by those who make the discoveries. It would be nice, however, if the IAU would simply recognize this fact.

Want to help name Pluto’s features? You can!

The New Horizons science team is asking the public to help name the planet’s features it expects to see when the spacecraft flies past Pluto on July 14.

I should mention that the project scientist for New Horizons is Alan Stern, who also happened to be a major player in the private space effort called Uwingu, which previously offered the public the opportunity to name features on Mars, without IAU approval.

In the case of New Horizons, Stern is kind of forced to work with the IAU, since the project is funded by NASA and NASA would never challenge a fellow bureaucracy like IAU.

The planet debate continues

In a public debate about the scientific definition of a planet, the IAU’s definition, imposed about eight years ago to expressly prevent Pluto from being called one, was soundly defeated when the votes were counted.

Science historian Dr. Owen Gingerich, who chaired the IAU planet definition committee, presented the historical viewpoint. Dr. Gareth Williams, associate director of the Minor Planet Center, presented the IAU’s viewpoint [which is the definition that is presently considered official by scientific bureaucrats]. And Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, presented the exoplanet scientist’s viewpoint.

Gingerich argued that “a planet is a culturally defined word that changes over time,” and that Pluto is a planet. Williams defended the IAU definition, which declares that Pluto is not a planet. And Sasselov defined a planet as “the smallest spherical lump of matter that formed around stars or stellar remnants,” which means Pluto is a planet.

After these experts made their best case, the audience got to vote on what a planet is or isn’t and whether Pluto is in or out. The results are in, with no hanging chads in sight.

According to the audience, Sasselov’s definition won the day, and Pluto IS a planet.

Notice that two of the three debaters considered Pluto a planet even before the vote was taken. Notice also that the first debater, Gingerich, was on the very committee that the IAU had created to come up with a definition and then ignored completely when its definition decided that Pluto was a planet.

In the end, it will be the people who speak the language that will decide, not IAU bureaucrats. This little public relations event and vote tells me that the bureaucrats will lose.

The IAU has issued a press release condemning the public’s naming of Martian craters as initiated by the private company Uwingu.

My heart bleeds: The IAU has issued a press release condemning the public’s naming of Martian craters as initiated by the private company Uwingu.

This war over the right to name features on other planets is mostly a tempest in a teapot, as the actual names will finally be decided by the people who end up living there. Nonetheless, I really like how Uwingu is pushing the IAU’s buttons, as that organization’s self-righteous insistence that it has the power to name everything in space, from craters to the smallest boulders, has for years struck me as pompous and wrong.

Despite IAU disapproval, the space company Uwingu has announced another private commercial naming project for the craters of Mars.

The war of space names continues: Despite the disapproval of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the space company Uwingu has announced another private commercial naming project for the craters of Mars.

Starting today (Feb. 26), anybody with an Internet connection and a few dollars to spare can give a moniker to one of the Red Planet’s 500,000 or so unnamed craters, as part of a mapping project run by the space-funding company Uwingu. “This is the first people’s map of Mars, where anybody can play,” said Uwingu CEO Alan Stern, a former NASA science chief who also heads the space agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. “It’s a very social thing.”

Sounds fun, and a clever way for this company to raise capital. Whether these names stick is an entirely different thing. Uwingu has as much right to assign names to objects as the IAU, but so far the IAU’s fake authority in this matter carries more weight.

The International Astronomical Union has rejected the first choice of voters for naming Pluto’s fourth and fifth moons.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has picked names for Pluto’s fourth and fifth moons, rejecting Vulcan, the first choice of the public.

After the discovery [of the moons], the leader of the research team, Mark Showalter (SETI Institute), decided to call for a public vote to suggest names for the two objects. To be consistent with the names of the other Pluto satellites, the names had to be picked from classical mythology, in particular with reference to the underworld — the realm where the souls of the deceased go in the afterlife. The contest concluded with the proposed names Vulcan, Cerberus and Styx ranking first, second and third respectively. Showalter submitted Vulcan and Cerberus to the IAU where the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) and the Committee on Small Body Nomenclature (WGSBN) discussed the names for approval.

However, the name Vulcan had already been used for a hypothetical planet between Mercury and the Sun. Although this planet was found not to exist, the term “vulcanoid” remains attached to any asteroid existing inside the orbit of Mercury, and the name Vulcan could not be accepted for one of Pluto’s satellites (also, Vulcan does not fit into the underworld mythological scheme). Instead the third most popular name was chosen — Styx, the name of the goddess who ruled over the underworld river, also called the Styx.

I just can’t wait until there really is a robust population of space-faring colonists, if only because those colonists will then tell the IAU to go to hell when it tries to tell them what to name things.

In a NASA contest, a nine-year-old has named asteroid 1999 RQ36 after the Egyptian god Bennu.

A rose by any other name: In a NASA contest, a nine-year-old has named asteroid 1999 RQ36 after the Egyptian god Bennu.

1999 RQ36, or Bennu, is an important asteroid for two reasons. First, NASA is sending an unmanned sample return mission to it in 2016. Second, some calculations suggest the asteroid has a 1 in a 1000 chance of hitting the Earth in 2182.

In other naming news, the private space company Uwingu has launched its “Adopt-a-Planet” campaign.

This open-ended campaign gives anyone in the public—worldwide—the opportunity to adopt exoplanets in astronomical databases via Uwingu’s web site at www.uwingu.com. Proceeds from the naming and voting will continue to help fuel new Uwingu grants to fund space exploration, research, and education.

As noted earlier, they are ignoring the IAU’s stuffy insistence that only the IAU can name things in space.

A private company tells the IAU to bug off!

A private company tells the IAU to bug off about who has the power to name things in space!

Uwingu affirms the IAU’s right to create naming systems for astronomers But we know that the IAU has no purview—informal or official—to control popular naming of bodies in the sky or features on them, just as geographers have no purview to control people’s naming of features along hiking trails. People clearly enjoy connecting to the sky and having an input to common-use naming. We will continue to stand up for the public’s rights in this regard, and look forward to raising more grant funds for space researchers and educators this way.

The company also pointed out that even astronomers name things without the IAU’s approval.

The International Astronomical Union has issued a press release condemning the commercial efforts of private companies to issue names for exoplanets.

Turf war! The International Astronomical Union has issued a press release condemning the commercial efforts of private companies to issue names for exoplanets.

Recently, an organisation has invited the public to purchase both nomination proposals for exoplanets, and rights to vote for the suggested names. In return, the purchaser receives a certificate commemorating the validity and credibility of the nomination. Such certificates are misleading, as these campaigns have no bearing on the official naming process — they will not lead to an officially-recognised exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued.
… [snip]
To make this possible, the IAU acts as a single arbiter of the naming process, and is advised and supported by astronomers within different fields. As an international scientific organisation, it dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of selling names of planets, stars or or even “real estate” on other planets or moons. These practices will not be recognised by the IAU and their alternative naming schemes cannot be adopted.

Well la-dee-da, how dare anyone else name anything ever in space!

The truth is, the IAU was originally given this function by astronomers to coordinate the naming of obscure astronomical objects, not to provide the official names for every object and feature that will ever be discovered in space. And though the IAU does tend to favor the choices of discoverers, it has in the past also ignored their wishes. (See for example my book Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, where the IAU rejected the names chosen by the Apollo 8 astronauts, even though those astronauts were the first to actually go and see these features.)

In the end, the names of important features in space will be chosen by those who live there.

NASA scientists in a battle with astronomers over who gets to name things on Vesta and Mars.

A rose by any other name: NASA scientists are in a battle with astronomers over who gets to name things on Vesta and Mars.

This is not a new problem. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has maintained its power over naming everything in space since the 1960s, even though the IAU has sometimes ignored the wishes of the actual discoverers and explorers and given names to things that no one likes. For example, even though the Apollo 8 astronauts wanted to give certain unnamed features on the Moon specific names, the IAU refused to accept their choices, even though those astronauts were the first human beings to reach another world and see these features up close.

Eventually, the spacefarers of the future are going to tell the IAU where to go. And that will begin to happen when those spacefarers simply refuse to use the names the IAU assigns.

A fitting memorial

Greeley Haven

Opportunity has settled into its winter haven.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity will spend the next few months during the coldest part of Martian winter at Greeley Haven, an outcrop of rock on Mars recently named informally to honor Ronald Greeley, Arizona State University Regents’ professor of planetary geology, who died October 27, 2011.

I met and interviewed Greeley a number of times in writing articles for magazines like Sky & Telescope and Astronomy. For years he was a central figure in the field of planetary geology, and his life effort is one of the prime reasons the United States has dominated this field for most of the past half century, with a fleet of planetary missions presently at Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto, with many more to come.

The article notes that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has the job of naming objects in space, and could take years to honor Greeley. I say that if these scientists, the true explorers of Mars, want to name something for him, then they should go ahead, and future generations should honor that choice, regardless of what the IAU says.

When is an Asteroid Not an Asteroid?

When is an asteroid not an asteroid?

The layered structure of Vesta (core, mantle and crust) is the key trait that makes Vesta more like planets such as Earth, Venus and Mars than the other asteroids, McCord said. Like the planets, Vesta had sufficient radioactive material inside when it coalesced, releasing heat that melted rock and enabled lighter layers to float to the outside. Scientists call this process differentiation.

This question immediately demonstrates once again the terrible mess the International Astronautical Union made when it decided several years ago to define what makes a planet, and came up with a definition that simply doesn’t work. For if Vesta should be considered a planet, why not Pluto?