Who Names Planets? The IAU Doesn’t….

Astronomers Do

This artist’s impression shows a planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple star system closest to Earth. Alpha Centauri B is the most brilliant object in the sky; the other dazzling object is Alpha Centauri A. The tiny signal of the planet was found with the HARPS spectrograph on the 3.6-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

A few days ago I posted a story about a press release that found its way out of the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) offices in Paris. In that missive, the IAU, wrote in vaguely general terms about problems of naming exoplanets. It said, in part:

“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.”

The organization that the IAU is NOT naming is Uwingu.com, a group of scientists and educators which is running a contest to suggest names for exoplanets and raising money to support science research and education. But the implication is clear.

The IAU press release goes on to state:

 “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.”

There are several problems with this. First, it implies (without proof) that Uwingu is running a scam. Second, it unfairly equates the Uwingu contest to suggest a popular name for the planet Alpha Centauri Bb (shown above), to the same level as star-naming groups whose sales pitches suggest that a person can buy an official star name. There is a clear distinction between the two, particularly in terms of intent. Uwingu has made it clear from Day 1 that it is assembling a list of names that astronomers can use if they wish as they discover exoplanets. Uwingu has also been very open about how the contest proceeds go to fund research and education.

Third, by its pronouncements, the IAU seems to be injecting itself into a situation where it simply has NO jurisdiction. Yes, the IAU has responsibility for handling nomenclature and assembling guidelines for use by astronomers, but the names usually come from the discoverers. Scientists can consult any sources they wish for names. The IAU has no control over an astronomer’s sources of inspiration for names, nor is it the “official” source of such popular names such as “Milky Way”, “Halley’s Comet”, or “The Sombrero Galaxy.” Does the last sentence in the second quote mean that if an astronomer uses a name from Uwingu’s (or anybody’s) list, the IAU will simply refuse to recognize it?

Yes, the IAU is supposed to help the discovers observe proper nomenclature rules. It is charged to create guidelines for types of names, numerical designations, etc. But, as far as I can tell, the IAU is not in charge of actually coming up with names. This is where the Uwingu contest fits quite well — as a source of names for astronomers to consult, if they so desire.

So, that raises more fundamental questions:  “Why did the IAU assume it was being associated with the Uwingu contest in the first place?” “Who put the IAU in charge of popular names of celestial objects?” “Does the IAU have an official naming process for exoplanets and what is it?” and “Is the IAU really the sole arbiter for any name somebody wants to give an object?” It’s not clear what the answers should be.

Below, based on events, emails, conversations, and online research, I offer a detailed editorial analysis of the situation about Uwingu and the IAU’s insistence on controlling names, and present some of the most serious issues spurred by IAU’s press release

By way of executive summary, after weighing all the facts I could discern from various sources over the past few days, and even after giving the IAU a huge benefit of the doubt due to its pre-eminent and respected role in astronomy, in my opinion the few IAU leaders who wrote the press release made a serious misjudgment based on their own misunderstanding of Uwingu’s intent. They compounded their error by failing to consult with the full IAU Commission 53 committee (tasked with exoplanet nomenclature), and there appeared to be no process of deliberation within the IAU before the organization sent its press release out. The IAU people who wrote the press release didn’t contact Uwingu to express their concerns and ask for clarification of their misunderstanding of Uwingu’s goals.  This blunder may speak to larger philosophical  issues within IAU particularly concerning nomenclature and who gets to name things.

The end result, however, is that much damage has been done to an honest group of people who have had their names and their organization’s reputation dragged through the mud. The IAU’s actions haven’t made members of its own leadership look very good, either.

The IAU plays and has played an important role for astronomy for many years. It needs to grow as astronomy does, and its leaders should make every effort to communicate with and respect its members efforts, whether in research or public outreach.  It’s disappointing to see an august institution make what appear to be grievous errors.

My take about Uwingu and its contest? There are a few days left to enter the contest. If it intrigues you, go play in it. Don’t let the issues with the IAU’s assumptions and internal politics dampen your enthusiasm. The contest is aboveboard, it’s generating a LOT of public interest, and your money helps science research and science education.  Have fun!

How The Situation Unfolded

Okay, so here’s a more detailed analysis of the situation, which is still unfolding.

When I read the IAU press release last week, my first question was, “How did THIS get out the door?” My second one was, “Did they even think about what they were writing?”  My third thought was, “Did the IAU even contact Uwingu to express its concerns before sending this out?”  I see a LOT of press releases in my work as a science writer and this one seemed very strange.

As I read it, and based upon what I knew of Uwingu.com and its aims, it seemed to me that IAU had hugely misunderstood the aim of Uwingu’s contest and was taking action based on that misunderstanding.

Next Step: Get the Facts

I immediately wrote to Uwingu founder and CEO Dr. Alan Stern, and Uwingu advisor Dr. Richard Tresch Fienberg (former editor of Sky & Telescope and current press officer of the American Astronomical Society) to get their take on the situation. I also contacted the IAU press office to ask if the writers of the IAU press release had contacted Uwingu to express their concerns as outlined in the press release. Dr. Alain Lecavelier, who is (among other things) President of the Division F Commission 53 Extrasolar Planets (WGESP) for IAU wrote a note back to me. His response was that Uwingu did not contact IAU about its plans for the contest to suggest planet names. Note that Dr. Lecavelier didn’t answer the question I asked: did the IAU contact Uwingu to get clarification?

Dr. Lecavelier went on to suggest that from the IAU perspective, Uwingu’s published statements of its goals were unclear and contradictory. So, it appears the IAU did read the Uwingu Web pages, but apparently did not contact the group for clarification to allay its concerns. I asked Uwingu if anyone had contacted any of their board members or leaders (many of whom ARE IAU members) and the answer was an unequivocal, “No one from the IAU contacted us.”

I also asked Dr. Lecavelier for some clarification of the naming rules it cites in its announcement. Here is his response.

They [sic] may be some confusion between the nomenclature names and popular names.  Commission 53 have for years had internal working guidelines for nomenclature, but it is correct that we need to finalize them, include some of the many diverse cases and advertise the guidelines widely.

Concerning popular names, this subject has been discussed for years, and no consensus was reached on the subject among the discoverers. But the new Organizing Committee of the Commission 53 decided to organize a wide consultation of the whole Commission in 2013, and that the result will be made public. The possibility to include participation of the general public in the naming campaigns will naturally be taken into account (I cannot judge what will be the conclusions yet, but some scheme for that is already on the table). 

Okay, fair enough. The IAU’s Commission 53 is set up to coordinate naming guidelines for extrasolar planets. But, according to Dr. Geoffrey Marcy, who is one of the world’s foremost exoplanet discoverers, works on the Kepler Mission and is on the board of advisors for Uwingu, the commission did not contact its own members before sending out the press release.  “They didn’t consult their members when blasting their policy,” he said. “Their process has been terrible here. They never contacted the Commission 53 on Exoplanets. They never contacted the IAU members. And they never contacted Uwingu. These mistakes offer a clear window into their attitude and respect for the astronomical community.”

Interestingly, many members of the Uwingu board are also IAU members, so as Dr. Marcy also pointed out to me, Uwingu actually DID work with IAU members in planning the People’s Choice suggested planet names contest. In addition, Uwingu’s planners contacted Xavier Dumusque, discoverer of the planet around Alpha Centauri B, on which the contest is centered, and he was enthusiastically supportive of the proposed contest.

Dr. Marcy also noted that there ARE NO written guidelines for planet naming. That is what IAU’s Commission 53 was tasked to do nearly two decades ago. In a statement released earlier this week, Dr. Marcy, who is also a member of Commission 53, said, “For example, the [IAU] press release hammers home the IAU right to name exoplanets… but in reality, the IAU has failed to construct a naming system for exoplanets, after 18 years of exoplanet discoveries! The IAU hasn’t named a single planet — after 18 years! Michel Mayor and I privately decided one day to put the lower case letters “b” and “c”, etc, after the star name. There has never been any IAU system of naming exoplanets.”

Cosmic Objects Have Many Names

So, in the absence of guidelines, and taking note of Dr. Lecavelier’s suggestion that there IS a process to come up with planet-naming guidelines that finally will be announced in 2013, astronomers have come up with exoplanet catalogs (complete with  names and designations) for their own use. Others, such as Mike Brown, who finds worlds in the outer solar system, simply assign names to their discoveries and go back to their research. Mars mission operators constantly nickname rocks and hills and other features on Mars, without necessarily contacting the IAU about it.

As others have pointed out in the past few days, astronomy has many, many, many objects with multiple names, such as M31 which is the formal approved name of the Andromeda Galaxy, which is sometimes referred to as the Great Nebula in Andromeda.  Mars has many place names that are unofficial, such as Mt. Sharp, yet we’ve seen no press releases from the IAU suggesting that those are wrong or even illegal.  

In an interesting development, NASA recently honored the University of Georgia and its Franklin College of Arts and Sciences by naming the Kepler star and planet system UGA 1785. It is noted as a nickname, accompanied by a plaque and a poster of the system.  Was IAU consulted about this?

Last year, the  SETI Institute had lots of fun with a naming contest for two of Pluto’s moons, and not one word was heard from the IAU about that.

After reading the  IAU pages and talking to several planetary scientists, and drawing from my own experience as a research astronomy person some years ago, I know that IAU has set up nomenclature rules about the forms that object names take. For example, the IAU rules for naming a comet states that it will be designed with a P (if it is a periodic comet), C indicates a non-periodic comet.  The letters are followed by the year and half-month it was discovered, and then with the discoverer’s name (if applicabe) in parenthesis. So, the comet we’ve all been watching lately is properly called C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). Most people just refer to it as PANSTARRS. Keeping track of this type of nomenclature is what the IAU has been tasked with. But, according to Geoffrey Marcy and the others I talked to, IAU’s Commission 53 has NOT come up with any similar guidelines about naming exoplanets, despite having nearly two decades to do so.  And, tellingly, the IAU has not taken steps to publicly complain about the other groups who have nicknamed other kinds of celestial objects without first checking with IAU.

So, why take trouble to write a press release that seems to single out one group for an exoplanet nickname contest and not others who also have engaged in non-official names? That gives IAU the appearance of cherry-picking what it wants to enforce.

In defense of the press release, IAU’s Dr. Lecavelier explained, “We did not single out Uwingu as we wish to inform people in general that they have to be careful with the commercial initiatives they get involved in.”

Okay, but then why go to the trouble of actually describing Uwingu’s contest and conveniently leave out the organization’s name? They might as well have listed the name, because everybody figured out immediately who they were talking about.

Lecavelier also said, “In the details, Uwingu may be different than other name-selling campaigns, but we believe the differences are subtle.”

If the IAU members responsible for the press release perceived it to be THAT subtle, then perhaps they should have picked up the phone and talked to Uwingu or sent an email asking questions. For some reason they did not.

If you think about it for even a short time, you can see a non-subtle difference between a star-name-selling company seeking to line its own pockets by selling what it claims are  “official” star names to gullible members of the public, and the Uwingu People’s Choice contest, which has gone out of its way to let participants know that their donations allow them to suggest and vote for names for planets. Nobody is being told they are buying a planet name anywhere on Uwingu’s site. I know. I looked.

Uwingu has always been very clear about its process and goals. If the IAU Commission members could not understand them,  despite reading Uwingu’s pages, then it really was up to them to contact Uwingu to clarify their own lack of understanding. By not doing so, IAU has damaged its own credibility. And, since what Uwingu is doing relates to creating lists of popular names for scientists to choose from if they’re interested, their contest is really outside of the IAU’s purview.

Astronomy and Business

By now, many people have written to IAU with questions about the press release, asking what IAU meant and why it appeared to single out Uwingu in its vaguely worded announcement. I ran across a letter posted online, written by a Dr. Thierry Montmerle, who is the General Secretary of the IAU. It was sent to a citizen named Charles Kersey who sent in questions about the whole debacle. Mr. Kersey was kind enough to forward that letter to me.

The response is interesting. In it Dr. Montmerle’s exact quote is:

“The firm stand of the IAU is that the universe must be free for all humanity, and that, under no circumstances, business should be made out of it, whatever form this business may take. “

So, if you take that statement at face value, you could easily assume that IAU is seeking control over more than naming, reserving for itself the right to say that NO business should be making money from the universe. Where does it get THAT authority?

More to the point, it ignores reality. Many, many organizations make money from the universe for many reasons. Uwingu is only one example, and the funds it generates DO NOT line the pockets of its principals or its board members. The bulk of its funds go mainly to science education and science research. You can read who and what they’ve supported right on their Web page.

But, there ARE many other organizations  that use astronomy as part of their business model. Where shall I start? Telescope makers, magazines, publishers of astronomy books (I have an astronomy book coming out in June; I’m sure other astronomers have books out (some of them IAU members, even — is the IAU going to gripe about THAT?)), freelance science writers around the world, t-shirts and other clothing, and music composers have used astronomy.

So have food makers, toy manufacturers, planetarium instrument makers, software developers, aerospace engineering companies involved in many facets of astronomy and space science, film producers, museums, planetariums, science centers, public and private observatories, and the list goes on and on. All these entities use astronomy — they use the universe — to make money. In point of fact, I am CEO of a company that makes astronomy videos, educational materials, exhibit materials, and other products to teach the public about the universe. It’s my understanding that one of my most strident commenters on this blog makes money as a science writer, focused on astronomy and space science.

Are we now all to stop because the IAU thinks it’s in charge of who gets to “use” the universe? I thought the organization was supposed to be coming up with guidelines to name exoplanets! Instead, the unfortunate wording of that sentence from Dr. Montmerle now looks like a giant intellectual property grab by IAU over who gets to “use the universe”. Is that what he really meant??

Seems to me the universe is about the largest example of public domain we’re likely to see.

 Is There More to the Back Story?

So, why is IAU suddenly so concerned about exoplanet names?

Read a few scientist blogs such as planetary scientist Jason Wright’s, where he thoroughly discusses the issues and yet also says that he applauds Uwingu’s overall goals. Consider comments from planetary scientists such as Geoffrey Marcy and Xavier Dumusque (discoverer of Alpha Centauri Bb). These and many others suggest that the issue of naming exoplanets is one that should have been resolved years ago by IAU. These scientists (among others) have stepped forward and pointed out the shortcomings of the current system (or lack thereof). It’s a message IAU should take to heart instead of lashing out at one group who is doing nothing wrong by engaging the public in science discovery.

IAU, by its own admission hasn’t come up with guidelines because, in reading from its own website on nomenclature, they simply say it’s too complex.

And, as for involving the public? IAU is not against it, but nothing on their pages suggests they’re wild about it, either. See my blog entry from April 13th for a quote about that.

It’s clear that the Uwingu People’s Choice contest has put a bit of heat on the IAU Commission 53 to complete its 18-year-old guidelines task. Perhaps the Uwingu contest illuminates that lack of action and that has disturbed the writers of the press release from IAU.

So, why the press release? Lots of conjecture is flying around about that one. It’s true that one of Uwingu’s principals has had a long history of disagreeing with IAU, but that was a scientific disagreement gone public. It’s not in IAU’s best interests to stoop to publicly shaming a member who disagrees with it. I sincerely hope that’s not the case.

I personally had no issue with the Uwingu contest. I examined it and found NO scam but an inventive way to involve the public in planetary science and exoplanets.  To put it simply, the group is raising funds via a contest to assemble a list of names to give to astronomers to use IF THEY WISH when they discover planets. Or, to use those names unofficially, as we do with so many other objects in the sky.

I also personally had no issue with IAU’s task to come up with a standardized way to name planets. Its concern about avoiding confusion in naming is honorable. The organization has certainly had plenty of time to do what it was tasked to do, but hasn’t quite done yet, despite years of astronomers asking it to do so.

As an astronomer (I’m not a member of IAU), I am very surprised at actions by what appears to be a very top-down controlling hierarchy at IAU. Asserting “We are in charge! Do as we say!” is at complete odds with scientific openness. As a science journalist, I’m also not amused at what may have been sloppy investigation that led IAU down the slippery slope tto the press release it sent out.

If a scientist doing an experiment did what IAU did — that is, made an assumption about something he or she observed, but never bothered to check it out or test that assumption with actual data (such as asking questions or doing tests) — and then published shoddy results, he or she would be excoriated. And rightly so. And yet, now the world has watched IAU make that fundamental mistake of assuming something, not checking it out, and then making a fool of itself in public by publishing a thinly veiled attack on a group that was doing nothing wrong.


The saga of the IAU vs. Uwingu is an interesting one. It’s probably not over. It began with a broadside from IAU which has decimated response to Uwingu’s contest and damaged their reputation unnecessarily. All due to what I at first charitably chalked up to a misunderstanding on IAU’s part. In reading the IAU pages, talking with Uwingu and various planetary scientists, I now think that this was a calculated hit and that there are other political issues going on, as well.

Over the past few days I’ve heard one question asked often: what jurisdiction does IAU have over the names that people assign to celestial objects? Originally the organization was tasked to provide guidelines for naming many things, and to perform a sort of bookkeeping service on those guidelines.  Today, that seems to have morphed into what appears to be a clumsy power grab over something it wasn’t tasked to do.

In other words, IAU may think it has all the jurisdiction, but in the case of exoplanets, it has taken no action. There’s a void there you could throw a super-Jupiter through.

The organization’s action has unnecessarily tarnished the reputations of a group of honest scientists and educators, and in the process the leaders of the IAU have also further hurt the organization’s already-spotty reputation (which suffered greatly during the Great Pluto Vote Debacle).  Those IAU leaders who presided over the press release should apologize not just to Uwingu, but to the rest of the world-wide astronomy community they claim to represent. They need to seriously consider how much this last debacle (following on the heels of the Great Pluto Vote disaster) has damaged its reputation both scientifically and politically. The issues I’ve raised and explored here are just the tip of a larger iceberg that the IAU has now hit.


(Note from CCP:  I know this is a long entry, but as this whole story unfolded, it became apparent to me that the IAU release muddied the waters where no muddying was needed. So, I began investigating. This report is my own view of events based on what I’ve been able to learn in several days of interviews and Web surfing. It necessarily contains my analysis and opinions of what has transpired so far.

I know a lot of people want to talk about this, and  I welcome discussion of this whole situation. I moderate comments mainly to avoid having ugly spam being posted, and I do also read all legitimate commentary on my entries. However, I will not tolerate rude, demeaning, or insulting commentary. Make your points politely and with verifiable evidence or they won’t go public.)


  1. Allen

    Please see this page: http://www.uwingu.com/a-public-name-for-bb/

    The page displays a FB entry by Xavier Dumusque who, when he wrote it, was apparently under the impression that Uwingu is a non-profit.

    But this is not correct; Uwingu is a for-profit enterprise. And surely those running Uwingu knows that. The image of the FB entry is misleading; putting it online, and leaving it there for the duration of the (for profit) fundraising effort, are deliberate acts.

    Other aspects of Uwingu trouble me, too; the above is just one example. IMHO, any damage to Uwingu’s reputation has been inflicted by Uwingu.


  3. C.C. Petersen

    I think that Dr. Dumusque has written elsewhere that he still supports the project. I’ll have to see if I can find that again and post a link. I’ve been out on travel the past few days and need to catch up with other work, too.

    Uwingu has always been clear about what it is and what it does. The IAU has misunderstood, and I stand by my assertion that if someone has a problem with understanding something they see, it is up to THEM to get the facts by actually contacting Uwingu to get clarification. It’s called doing your homework/due diligence.

    Thank you for writing; thank you for reading the blog.

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