The year is 2262. Humanity is in the midst of its seventh space race. President Bush XVI stands in front of an expectant crowd. “We choose to go to planet Leisurely Fish in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” he announces to rapturous applause, mimicking JFK’s famous “we choose to go to the Moon” speech, before flying off in his spaceship. Or something.
Confused? We don’t blame you. Leisurely Fish is just one of a large shortlist of names that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has selected for 32 exoplanets in 20 planetary systems. The preapproved names, which range from the sensible to the downright bizarre, can now be voted for by the public. The winners will be announced in mid-November, with voting closing on October 31 this year. Voting began yesterday at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu, Hawaii.
This is something of a big deal. It is the first time that planets outside the Solar System will ever officially be named. Societies and clubs were invited to suggest names, which the IAU sifted through to make their shortlist. Few, if any, of the exoplanets picked are potentially habitable worlds, though; most are gas giants larger than Jupiter, and much larger than Earth.
The vast majority of exoplanets we know of to date were found by the Kepler Space Telescope, illustrated. NASA.
Naming exoplanets has been considered for a long time. At the moment they are all given designations based on their host star and the order they are in, which can lead to complicated names like PSR 1257+12 b, the first planet found outside the Solar System. This ExoWorlds vote will be the first attempt to simplify the identification of distant planets.
Some of the chosen names seem to be fairly normal. In the upsilon Andromedae system, for example, names such as Sagan, Asimov and Londinium are all suggested. But elsewhere, things get a bit weird. For the exoplanet Fomalhaut b, one society proposes calling it Leisurely Fish “to remind everyone of slowing down to enjoy the beautiful night sky just as a leisurely fish.” Right. Elsewhere there are homages to Neil Armstrong, descriptive names like Ringsand and, uh, Starry Bunnies.
Getting to this stage has taken a while, though, considering that the first exoplanet was found two decades ago. Now, with about 2,000 confirmed, the process of naming them all has proved rather daunting. Rather than going through one by one, the IAU has decided to keep the original naming system in place, while allowing a few to be given more memorable names.
So, what are you waiting for? Get over there and start voting, so at least we won’t have to tell those aliens that we named their planet Leisurely Fish.