Guest Editorial: Make no little planets
“Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology announced Wednesday that they have found new evidence of a giant icy planet lurking in the darkness of our solar system far beyond the orbit of Pluto. They are calling it Planet Nine.”
Washington Post, Jan. 21
No, no, no. This can’t be.
We’re not talking about the likelihood of a new planet much larger than Earth, a planet so distant that it would take up to 20,000 years to orbit the sun.
But scientists calling this mysterious celestial body “Planet Nine”? Never.
Scientists who seek to ignite public imagination and unleash new funding for space exploration will quickly quash this Planet Nine fiasco. This planet isn’t named Planet Nine. It has to be something better. Something that evokes the romance and danger of space. Something that can hold its own against the inspiring likes of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, or Jupiter, the Roman thunder god.
And now, jostling for attention in the solar household, Planet Nine? That’ll never get off the launch pad.
You might think we’ve embarked on a premature mission, since the planet hasn’t yet been directly observed by astronomers. But we have faith.
One of Planet Nine’s discoverers is astronomer Michael Brown, best known as the scientist whose observations led to Pluto’s demotion from planet to “dwarf planet” in 2006. Brown calculates that the odds of the new planet’s existence at “maybe 90 percent.”
“OK, OK, I am now willing to admit: I DO believe that the solar system has nine planets,” Brown wryly tweeted from his account @plutokiller.
So do we. That’s why America should harness its greatest minds to bestow the perfect name on this new planet.
There hasn’t been a call for planet-branding in decades, ever since the anointing of Pluto in 1930.
But scientists have been busy discovering other bodies — moons, comets, asteroids — and festooning them with names that fall short in the Inspiration of Humankind Department. For instance: Bebhionn, a moon of Saturn discovered in 2005. Or Carpo, a Jupiter moon, discovered in 2003. Or Fornjot, another Saturn moon and not much of an improvement on Bebhionn.
Yes, names matter. Astronomers who discover a comet get to paste their names on it (up to three names, separated by hyphens). Remember the gee-whiz landing of a craft on the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014? That also could have been a less memorable landing on Comet 67P, the numbingly mundane name some scientists used.
The discoverer of this new planet has dibs to name it, pending International Astronomical Union approval. Traditionally, planets carry the names of mythological gods. But we don’t know why this edict should rule for eternity.
How about an international contest to name the new planet?
There’s precedent: The IAU recently announced the winners for its first-ever naming contest for 14 stars and 31 so-called exoplanets orbiting them. The IAU said it tallied more than half a million votes from 182 countries. The names came from mythological figures (Meztli, Aztec moon goddess), famous scientists (Galileo, Copernicus), ancient cities (Tadmor, now Syria’s Palmyra), fictional characters (Sancho of “Don Quixote”) and extinct languages (Veritate, from the Latin, veritas). That’s half a million votes for exoplanets that are way, way out there. Imagine the excitement for a new planet in our own solar system.
Or … how about a worldwide lottery that raises billions for research and allows one lucky winner to name the planet?
Or a bidding war among those with the world’s fattest wallets and biggest egos for naming rights? (Planet Trump? Planet Musk? Planet Buffett?)
Think big, Earthlings.