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Competition to label alien worlds could make you a star

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You won't be able to give a planet an insulting name to denigrate a politician, but if you're part of the amateur astronomy world, you can help bestow names on exoplanets.

The International Astronomical Union has opened up 305 exoplanets for public input into naming, with public astronomical organisations, or “non-profit astronomy-interested organisations” (the IAU lists high schools and cultural clubs as examples) invited to register and start coming up with names.

The IAU is restricting the name-game to exoplanets discovered before 31 December 2008, on the basis that such planets have been studied well enough that their existence can be considered “confirmed”. That still includes 20 years' worth of discoveries.

Stars that host the exoplanets are also up for naming – 206 of them – except for those that already have common names. Quoting from the site:

“Fomalhaut (alpha Piscis Austrini) is one of the four “royal stars” of ancient Persia, with Aldebaran, Antares, and Regulus; Pollux (beta Geminorum) is the twin brother of Castor, son of Zeus (Jupiter) and Leda, from the ancient Greek and Roman mythologies — the constellation Gemini is named after them (Gemini means twins in latin). Two other stars also have common names: gamma Cephei (Errai, Arabic for shepherd), and iota Draconis (Edasich, Arabic also).”

The general public will be able to vote to rank the names in March 2015 (registration will be required). There are restrictions – for example, trademarks, living individuals and commercial names are excluded, so there will (thankfully) be no “planet Google / Facebook / Starbucks” or the like (nor, we suppose, would Vulture Central make the cut). Individuals, places or events “principally known for political, military or religious activities” are also a no-no.

And only non-offensive names will be accepted, so the Ukrainian astronomers who bought a $10 certificate from the astronomy-supporting Pale Blue Dot project to name a star Putin-Huilo (“Putin is a dickhead”, roughly) won't get anywhere with the IAU.

As the IAU notes, the popular names won't replace the scientific designations of the planets or stars. ®

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