A screenshot of Uwingu's map of Mars (orange craters are still up for sale)
Last month, a space startup called Uwingu launched a campaign to sell off the naming rights to the craters on Mars, starting at $5 each, with the proceeds from the sale dedicated to funding science research. In just 10 days, more than 7,000 people from 78 countries shelled out for the chance to be immortalized on the red planet.
Yesterday, those plans hit a snag: the Paris-based International Astronomical Union, the main authority on matters celestial, ruled that those craters are simply not up for sale, and that the names should not appear on any forthcoming maps of Mars.
"Such initiatives go against the spirit of free and equal access to space, as well as against internationally recognized standards," IAU said in a statement. Instead, the IAU encourages the public to follow the "officially recognized" methods, by which only "features that are deemed to be of significance to science are given a name by the community."
Uwingu shot back today with accusations that the IAU is simply behind the times.
"The IAU needs to stop being the self-licking ice cream cone of the scientific community, and recognize that as long as its existence is merely to gratify its own puritanical principles and sense of elitism, it is not going to be a part of the next wave of space exploration," co-founder Doug Griffith told NBC News. "That will be done by others who recognize that science exists for the benefit of the world, not for the scientists."
Since it was founded in 1919, part of the IAU's mission has been "to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy" — a goal that includes establishing "unambiguous astronomical nomenclature."
For a sense of what the IAU might be trying to avoid, take a quick perusal of the Uwingu site, which includes names like "Nick's Little Hole In The Ground" and "Baconmancakes."
Uwingu has refused to be scared off by the IAU's hard line, even if the purchased names never become official. "We've gotten almost as many members participating in Uwingu in the past 2 weeks as the IAU has after a century," CEO Alan Stern, a former NASA science chief, told Space.com. "I think people clearly see where the future is, and the past."
If every avaialble crater on Mars gets named, Uwingu could raise as much as $10 million, which will go to organizations like Mars One, the SETI Institute, Astronomers Without Borders and the International Dark-Sky Association.