2014-07-10

Name Exoplanets - "official" and IAU-approved

So far they're called "Cygni B b", "HD 128311 c" or "OGLE235-MOA53 b" - but now you can give Exoplanets (and their host stars) proper names. The best: You don't have to "buy" them from some company, and the names given will be official - approved and recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). 

IAU and Citizen Science platform Zooniverse.org are starting a new project: NameExoWorlds.org. You can find out all you need to know on their website. Basically, the IAU preselected 305 planets in 260 planetary systems for naming, only those that are well-characterized with no danger of "disappearance" (as happened to some planets recently).
Artist's impression of an exoplanet and it's host star. IAU/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)
The procedure selected by IAU and Zooniverse is not exactly simple, but ensures everything works in an orderly manner. Only approved and registered organizations can submit proposals (don't worry, your local stargazing club or planetarium can be such an organization). There will be a preselection, only about 20 or 30 of the total 260 systems will be named in the first round. And, of course, there are restrictions on what names to select (see their website for details).

Frankly, I had some problems understanding the procedure, especially about the "preselection" of the 20-30 systems. So I asked IAU's Thierry Montmerle for clarification. His answer is very useful, so with his permission, I share it here:

As Thierry explained to me, the process will work in six steps:

1) The registered "clubs" (for short) vote for any ExoWorld (number unlimited) they think deserve naming in their opinion, taken from the IAU list of 260 ExoWorlds. This leads to a ranked list of ExoWorlds, by simply adding the votes.

2) Let's assume (as we have done) that 20,000 clubs register. Once the registration is closed, the IAU decides that, say, the number of ExoWorlds to be named is limited to 20 (before the naming, of course). So we will have the 20 top-voted ExoWorlds ready for naming.
 

3) Each club then chooses (not the IAU!) their favourite ExoWorld from this "voted list" (only one per club), and eventually submits names for its members (star + 1, 2, 3... exoplanets), with a nice justification. This justification is of course essential to explain the names (their origin, the reasons for picking them, etc.). 

4) As a result, each ExoWorld will receive x thousands of naming proposals (on average 1,000 per ExoWorld: 20,000/20). 

5) The general public ("volunteers") will then screen the proposals (available on the Zooniverse platform), probably not all, and vote for the ones they like best. (This is how Zooniverse projects work.) Again, here we simply add the votes. It doesn't matter how many proposals each "volunteer" will screen: since we expect several 100,000 people to participate, in the end each proposal should have been reviewed at least once (on average, by 100 people at least: 100,000/1,000; probably much more).


6) So in the end, for each of the 20 club-selected ExoWolds, there will be a most-voted combination of names (at least one exoplanet, then 1 star + 1 exoplanet, etc.).  That will be the winning names -and the winning club. At this stage, however, the IAU will make sure that all continents have a share in the number of ExoWorlds named via this process. The exact process will basically depend on how the continents are represented in the first place -by the registration of clubs. 

Finally, the results are announced at a special public ceremony held during the IAU XXIX General Assembly in Honolulu, USA (3-14 August 2015). I think this is a great project and hope many astro-aficionados will take part!

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