While the planets of our solar system are mostly named for gods and goddesses like Neptune and Venus, those orbiting other stars have unwieldy monikers like HD 108874 b and BD-17 63 b. Luckily for them, you'll soon get a chance to help give them names they deserve.
A contest to crowdsource common names for 305 planets discovered outside our solar system has been announced by the International Astronomical Union. Such planets are known as exoplanets.
The IAU is the scientific organization that gives stars, planets and other celestial objects their official scientific names. It also sanctions their official common names, sometimes based on public suggestions and voting. Some of the recent objects it has named include Kerberos and Styx, two moons of the dwarf planet Pluto.
More than 1,000 exoplanets have been discovered so far, including worlds such as super-Earths and hot Jupiters that are different from anything found in our solar system.
The planets featured in the IAU's NameExoWorlds contest were all discovered before Dec. 31, 2008. They have been studied enough that scientists are confident they know each planet's mass and orbit. The planets circle 260 different stars, in systems that contain up to five planets each. In most cases, their host stars also need names and will also get them as part of the contest.
The contest will be held in partnership with Zooniverse, a website devoted to citizen astronomy projects, as well as astronomy clubs and non-profit organizations around the world. Such groups will register to choose 20 or 30 planets from the list that they want to name. They will send in their proposed names in December.
The names will go to a public vote in March 2015, and the winning names will be announced in August 2015.
The new common names for the exoplanets will not replace their official scientific names, but will be officially recognized as alternatives.
Julia Neeser, marketing co-ordinator for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, said she thinks the contest is a great idea.
"We will encourage our members to participate when the program is underway," she added in an email.
Colin Haig, vice president of the society, said anyone who wants to take part can join a local chapter of the society, whose members are mainly amateur astronomers — "ordinary families." The society hopes to have information about its participation in the contest on its website in coming weeks.
Last year, the IAU got involved in a controversy over a different planet-naming contest. Uwingu, a non-profit company that raises money for space research and education, launched a competition to give a common name to the exoplanet Alpha Centauri Bb. Participants were charged small fees to suggest and vote on names and were offered certificates validating their nominations.
Uwingu misled participants into believing it had some influence over the process of naming astronomical objects, whereas the IAU is the sole arbiter of that process, the scientific organization charged