New initiative gives you the chance to name an exoplanet

A worldwide contest is letting the general public help name up to 30 exoplanets and their host stars (Image: IAU)

The International Astronomical Union (IAU), the organization in charge of naming celestial objects, has set up a public contest that will let people all around the globe pick the names of 20 to 30 well-characterized exoplanets and their respective host stars by August next year.

It’s been 20 years since the first planet outside of our solar system was discovered, and nowadays the observations of Kepler and other powerful telescopes are bringing the exoplanet count close to an impressive two thousand mark. Most of these worlds, however, are only known by very dry and unimaginative scientific names (such as "CoRoT-4 b" or "PSR 1257 12 d") that do little justice to giant rogue planets without a host star or distant worlds made largely of diamonds.

The IAU is aiming to remedy that with a worldwide contest that will let organizations around the world propose popular names for up to 30 out of 305 well-known extrasolar planets, and will then let people around the globe have the final say by means of online voting.

Astronomy-related clubs and non-profits from all countries are free to register on the NameExoWorlds website, where the entire process will take place, until the end of the year. Next month these organizations will be asked to vote to select the 20 to 30 planets to be named, and later on they will be able to submit their naming proposals along with a 250-word rationale explaining their choice. Starting from April, the general public will be able to vote to select the names among the ones that have been proposed, with the final results set to be announced in August 2015.

The rules of the contest only allow organizations (and not individuals) to submit naming proposals directly, but the organizations themselves are free to involve anyone in the decision process. For instance, the University of Leicester in England has recently announced that its candidate name will be picked from those submitted by readers of local newspaper Leicester Mercury. The newspaper will collect the proposals and then a panel of experts from the university will pick the strongest candidates before Mercury readers vote to select their favorite.

All public astronomical organizations (planetariums, science centers, amateur astronomy clubs, online astronomy platforms) and non-profit astronomy-interested organizations (such as universities, cultural clubs and even high schools) around the world are free to participate. We hope that many will involve the local population in the process of choosing names for these distant alien planets.

If you’re considering submitting your own name, there’s a few rules you should remember. For instance, names can’t be longer than 16 characters, should preferably be one-word only, and pronounceable in some language. You also can’t name your exoplanet after living individuals or pet animals, as well as people, places or events known for political, military or religious reasons (the full rules can be read here).

You can search the up-to-date list of organizations taking part on the AIU website and, if you wish, nudge your local organizations to join the initiative and help them decide what name to pick.

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