Tag Archives: Bayer catalogue

What’s In A Name?

Hundreds of astronomers across the globe are currently searching nearby stars for a fleeting glimpse of astronomical gold dust: exoplanets. I am also part of the search, scanning through terabytes of data taken by the WASP and NGTS telescopes looking for the distinctive signal of a distant world crossing its star. Thanks to the mountains of data from NASA’s Kepler probe, it is now even possible for amateurs to go online and help out. And thousands of people have taken part, spurred on by the chance to become the first person in history to lay eyes on a new part of the universe.

It is a thrilling quest, but the question on everyone’s lips is this: do you get to name it? Surprisingly enough, the answer is a ‘No’. Or maybe a ‘Not yet’…

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Here on Earth it has long been custom that, for whatever it may be, the discoverer becomes the namer. Columbus, Cook and Magellan all took pleasure in naming new lands, doctors such as Alzheimer or Asperger gave their names to their respective disorders, even some recently named animal species include Attenborosaurus conybeari and Heteropoda davidbowie in honour of the researcher’s heros. Chemists discovering new elements are given a relative freedom over naming their discoveries. Even in astronomy, comets are named after their discoverer with names such as Lovejoy or McNaught often gracing comet codes. Exoplanets, on the other hand, are a very different kettle of fish.

The problem with naming planets comes from the stars they circle. As nice as it would be to name every object something eye-catching like ‘Permadeath’ or ‘Baallderaan’, to avoid confusion the name of the star must be listed first. This is much like the way biological names come with both genus (Homo) and species (sapiens). So how do we end up with names like HD80606b whereas biologists get Bushiella beatlesi? The first part comes down to how we name stars.

Too Many stars to Count

Unlike islands or animals, there exist a near infinite plethora of stars. Our galaxy alone has more than 100 billion. Attempt to name each in the Linnaean style and you would quickly run out of words (and sanity). Early sky-watchers soon realised this and, after giving a few hundred stars colloquial names such as Vega or Pollux, settled for simply numbering the stars by brightness in a certain area. This ‘Bayer’ designation, cooked up in 1603, ranked the stars from alpha down to omega and beyond. For example the brightest in the Centaurus constellation is Alpha Centauri, our Sun’s nearest neighbour. With limited telescopic power and Greek and Latin characters, Bayer gave up after about 1500 stars.

More recent surveys have used telescopes to attempt to sweep the rest of the sky into some sort of order. This has resolutely failed, with the majority of stars having numerous names under many different catalogues (HD, HR, Gliese, or HIP to name but a few). Each of these official catalogues simply orders the stars by number, giving rise to the cumbersome alphanumeric system we see today. {NB: Despite what some might insist, naming a star has never been done via gift subscription companies}. So, thanks to the sheer number of star systems, the sky is a mess and there would seem little hope of sorting it out. 

GJ581 Planets

But forgetting the star for a second, once a planet is found we do get to add a ‘species name’ to the stars, right? Dont get your hopes up: this is normally the lower-case letter b. The lower case shows it to be a planet (as opposed to ‘B’ which would designate another star) and the ‘b’ designates it as the second object in the system after the star itself. In multi-planet systems things get even more confusing, with the order of names increasing not outwards from the star but simply in order of which was discovered first. For example GJ581e circles within the orbit of ‘b’ and GJ 581g is sandwiched between ‘c’ and ‘d’. However, this fundamentally makes sense: planets in the same solar system are given names reflecting their sibling nature.

It may be a dysfunctional system that results in far-from eye-catching names, but it is one at least partly grounded in reason. The alternative, of letting discoverers name the planet whatever they want (my personal choice would be Hughtopia), would ultimately end in confusion and a lot more angry shouting matches at conferences.

Even worse, a whole host of recent crowd-sourced websites have sprung up attempting to get the general public to name the 100-strong list of current exoplanets (for money, of course).  The International Astronomical Union (IAU), who ultimately decide on the names of everything in space, have even given support to public-generated naming systems. The feeling among astronomers, though, is that such a move might not be such a good idea.

But is there a middle way? Could the ordered nomenclature remain intact while giving at least some naming rights to the discoverers? The Planetary Habitability Laboratory recently proposed a system that would retain the star name but allow free reign over the planetary name, for example allowing Alpha Centauri B b to become Alcen-B Rakhat. It is an intriguing idea, and one that could help improve the public perception of astronomy. I, for one, am still hopeful that ‘Betelgeuse Hughtopia’ can become a reality.

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