regarding the naming of planets by a group called Uwingu that is misleading or inaccurate in several ways. Reading it, one could be forgiven for coming away believing that the IAU has given official names to planets, that these names can be found at
, and that the commission responsible for this process has refused to consider Uwingu's names. All three implications are absolutely false.
The IAU states "In the light of recent events, where the possibility of buying the rights to name exoplanets has been advertised, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) wishes to inform the public that such schemes have no bearing on the official naming process.... they will not lead to an officially-recognised exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued.
This is misleading for several reasons:
1) Contrary to the press release's implication, the IAU does not name planets.
In the 20 years since the discovery of exoplanets, the IAU has never officially named any of them. There is not even an official scheme for binary stars, or an official definition of an exoplanet! (There are recommendations and conventions for both, but these do not carry the official weight of an IAU definition, which is what the press release implies. For instance, the oft-used 13 Jupiter mass threshold for planet-hood was endorsed by an IAU Working Group as a useful working definition, but it is not "official". The planet definition that killed Pluto explicitly applies only to Solar System objects.)
2) Contrary to the press releases's assertion, there is no "official naming process."
As another part of the IAU statement makes clear, the IAU may establish one in the future through its Commission 53.
3) Contrary to the press release's assertion, Commission 53 has not foreclosed the possibility of using Uwingu's names.
Since there is no official process, there has been no decision about what names to use. Thus, there is no reason that the Uwingu database could not be used in a future process established by the IAU. That decision is up to the members of Commission 53, not an IAU press agent [Update: or any other signatory of the press release]. In fact, I'll bet the members of Uwingu, given their prominent status in the astronomical community, will ask the members of Commission 53 to use their database as a source of potential names.
4) Contrary to the press release's implication, the press release does not and cannot describe official IAU policy.
IAU policy is determined by democratic vote of its commissions and General Assembly. Neither has endorsed any nomenclature for planets, much less the assertions of the press release. The IAU statement is thus the product of a rogue press
agent release*. I know this because I have contacted a member of Commission 53 and learned that they were not consulted for or even informed of this press release before it went out, and that the commission has not established a naming process since it met in Beijing in 2012.
5) Contrary to the press release's implication, Uwingu is not actually promising to give official names to or to sell naming rights to specific planets
The Uwingu project in question does not promise "rights to name exoplanets". It is compiling a database of names that astronomers, including those in charge of nomenclature at the IAU, might use to name exoplanets. This is quite distinct from
"novelties" like the International Star Registry
who claim to allow you to "officially" name a particular star. (Today, that registry is careful to point out astronomers will not use your name; in the past they have done everything they could to imply the names would be official.)
There is an Uwingu contest to name one particular planet -- alpha Centauri B b. They post a letter by that planet's discoverer, Xavier Dumusque, endorsing this contest. This is not a meaningless gesture -- the discoverer of asteroids, for instance, can nominate an official name according to the official IAU naming process.
That said, I think that Uwingu should make it much more clear that the IAU could establish such an official naming scheme in the future, and that if it does so it is under no obligation to use Uwingu's names. But the IAU's press release goes far beyond this caveat.
Finally, and this is where things get personal: the press releases states:
"A catalogue of the exoplanets discovered, with their officially assigned catalogue designations, can be consulted in the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia (http://exoplanet.eu/)."
Let's be clear: exoplanet.eu is NOT an "official" list of exoplanet names, or of exoplanents
. Comparison with other lists, such as mine at exoplanets.org
or the Exoplanet Archive
reveals it contains many planets that are not on those lists. This is because those planets have never been subject to peer review, or that their very existence is dubious. The IAU has never officially defined any list, any planet names on any list, or the process by which those planets would appear on those lists. In fact, those times the IAU has given quasi-official status to a list many years ago (for instance, here
), they did NOT use the list at exoplanet.eu.
This is not to disparage exoplanet.eu: it is an invaluable resource that my group uses on a daily basis, and the astronomical community is in debt to Jean Schneider and his team for their hard work on that site. But exoplanet.eu is not an official arm of the IAU, and it does not contain a perfect list of exoplanets.
I hope the IAU issues a clarification on all of these points.
OK, glad I got that off my chest. :)