The Crisis of Naming the Universe

J.A. Grier
Jan 5 · 8 min read

How Our Choice of Names Can Help or Hinder ‘Space Exploration for All’

Small-scale features on the planet Mars — unofficial nicknames used by the science team to plan rover activities. NASA Photojournal

Compassion always — including in astronomical naming.

There is a crisis surrounding the naming of objects in the universe. You might ask — How can there possibly be a crisis of astronomical names? Why is naming so important?

Names and the act of naming have incredible power. As a writer and as a scientist, I have a great deal of respect for the power of words. Naming focuses our thoughts, makes them more clear, and changes our relationship with the object (or person) in question. Naming creates a written and oral history for an object. Conquerors and colonists have long known the power of names. They have renamed objects and forced people to take new names in order to exert their power over them. Renaming obscures the past, allowing for the new regime to more fully fill the minds of the people.

Naming is language. Language is culture.

The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is working towards an expanded vision for space exploration. This vision is one where space exploration is open in some fashion to every single person on the planet.

I spoke to UNOOSA on the topic of ‘Ethics in Space Exploration’ last year, and I emphasized the subject of this very article — names in space.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is responsible for setting policy around astronomical names, and then officially approving those names that are nominated. They have a detailed process for assigning a name to a feature, asteroid, or exoplanet, since each planetary body or area of exploration has been given a specific naming scheme.

Our current naming crisis stems (in part) from a bottle-neck in the official naming process: there are now more features, asteroids, and extra-solar planets to name than the IAU can keep up with. (Note that some of these have been assigned numbers or identification tags, but not names.) Their process works relatively smoothly for small numbers of major features, but not for the inundation of small-scale features and worlds being identified by current space missions. Scientists need names fast because they need to be sure they are all referencing the same object as they perform science, plan rover destinations, and launch spacecraft to new worlds. The Press and Space Communicators need those same names just as fast so they can reach the general public in a timely manner with the excitement of new discoveries.

The varied responses to this bottle-neck have created our current naming crisis. Because those conducting space exploration can’t get official names when and how they need them, they have been using temporary tags, nicknames, or cultural references to identify features and targets. In some cases, they hope to get these names accepted by the IAU at a later date, and in other cases they are bypassing the IAU altogether.

While the IAU process is certainly not perfect, it is at least a process built on policy. These policies can be changed to ensure that names are compassionate, respectful and fair, especially to those who do not have the power to advocate for themselves. If the IAU process is not working, then we need to partner with the IAU to change that process. Or we need to create something brand new. What we can’t do is take naming into our own hands, vigilante-style. That approach will ensure that our most vulnerable people will be left out at best, and materially damaged at worst.

I’ve had personal experience with the naming crisis on several occasions. At one point, my coauthors and I were unable to get a name for a certain channel on Mars that we had been investigating. We ended up having to refer to it as the “unnamed channel system” in the research paper we published. This was irritating, of course, but at least my coauthors and I didn’t compound the problem by using an unofficial name that might have been inappropriate or hurtful to others.

We (scientists, communicators, educators, ethicists, policy-makers, advocates, etc.) have to find a way to name things so that the names are there as soon as explorers need them, but also are chosen with care and assigned properly.

The multiple responses to this naming crisis are telling. One response is that some people have sold names for money. Such money can be used for company profits, or to fund education or scientific research. The many issues with this include (1) this leaves naming solely to those with economic privilege, (2) the names are not official in any way, (3) how the names might ever be used is not explained in a transparent fashion.

When I was a kid, my father bought me a gift — my name on a star, as certified by one of those “star registration” companies. At the time I thought it was great — I also thought it was completely official. After all, the certificate was impressive and said the name was “insured” by Lloyd’s of London. I was really pleased with the gift, until I became an astronomer myself and found out that the name wasn’t real at all. That is, no official scientific body, society, or nation recognizes these “registered” names. I was very disappointed. I didn’t mention anything to my father since I didn’t want him to know that the star in question would never be referred to by my name.

Other companies, such as the for-profit company Uwingu, have sold names for the surface features on other bodies. Uwingu created a ‘People’s Map of Mars’ that included both IAU names and those purchased by members of the general public. These purchased names are not official feature names of course, but Uwingu said they would be used in exploration because Uwingu was partnering with an organization dedicated to a human presence on Mars. Regrettably, the partner organization known as MarsOne has been the subject of controversy, with recent articles such as this one in Inverse saying, “At worst, the project’s leaders are intentionally disregarding the chaos of their organization and taking participants along for a wild ride — but not one that’s going to Mars.” At this point it appears unlikely that these purchased names will ever be used in exploration.

Another approach to unofficial naming is to have an online vote. The New Horizons Mission held a poll that asked people to vote on their favorite names for potential features in the Pluto system. The campaign was called “Our Pluto,” and thousands of people responded. The campaign ended in April 2015, allowing the New Horizons team to be ready with potential names when they arrived in the Pluto system in July 2015.

Section of the map of informal names for features on Pluto as suggested by the ‘Our Pluto’ campaign.

But in spite of the improvement over the idea of buying names, voting like this also has serious problems. One issue we’ve dealt with frequently in the science-fiction/fantasy/horror community is dealing with great work from not-so-great people. The issue has been discussed at length more than I can do justice to here, but was addressed head on using necessary honesty by Nnedi Okorafor in a post about winning the World Fantasy Award. (Also see this article by Devon Price.) In short, the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos, now represented on the map of Pluto below, was an open racist. “Cthulhu Regio” is therefore potentially damaging to marginalized people. If we are going to have voting as a means to suggest astronomical names, then there needs to be a process whereby suggested names can be vetted so as not to harm people.

This brings us to the most recent example of a “naming issue.” This is the nickname for the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69, which was just visited by New Horizons. It was given this nickname by a vote — Ultima Thule. As noted in this Newsweek article, the name Ultima Thule “was adopted by the forerunners to the Nazi party, and the term remains in use by modern so-called alt-right groups.” It therefore is not an appropriate choice for an astronomical object or feature, at least not now, when people are still suffering from those who use/d that name.

This particular issue has been discussed in much detail elsewhere (such as in this excellent article on the blog “POC in Science!) so I will present the salient points here. (1) The process of voting and final choice were opaque; one could not trace the suggestion and final selection of the name through the process. For example, the chosen name finished seventh, not first. (2) During and immediately after the encounter with MU69, people came forward to express their disappointment with the name. These people were bullied, shamed, and hounded by others who did not want to see the name challenged.

Fantastic image of 2014 MU69 — NASA/JHU/SWRI

The defensive nature of this backlash was quite disturbing to those of us who have been working hard to see that those with male (and usually white) privilege in our field come to an understanding of how they can use that privilege to help, rather than hinder, those with a marginalized status.

There are too many awesome names that we can choose from for us to spend one single moment considering a name that hurts anybody at all.

In fact, we can do better than ‘not hurt’ people — we can encourage, lift up, and empower them with our choice of names.

Many of us in astronomy and planetary science saw this crisis coming — and have been writing and speaking about it for some time now. But as we know, change comes slowly to large, entrenched bodies of policy makers who do not see the severity of the problems until it is quite late. Or too late.

As we move forward with space exploration, we need to be as inclusive as possible, or the voices of most of the planet will not go forward into space. We need to have the tough conversations before each endeavor. If we do this right, we will indeed engender unity. As we have these conversations, we will discover our global vision for space exploration. It will be something amazing, a vision we cannot even conceive without the input of all kinds of people. So let’s take the responsibility to seek out and have the necessary compassionate conversations now.

Again — compassion always —

There are too many awesome names that we can choose from for us to spend one single moment considering a name that hurts anybody at all.

Some of this material appeared previously on my personal blog “One Writer’s Mind” at jagrier.com

Dr. J.A. Grier is a planetary scientist, fiction/creative non-fiction writer, space educator, poet, science communicator, and an advocate for those with mental illness/disability in STEM. Various science facts and fictions can be be found on Dr. Grier’s blog at jagrier.com, as well as on twitter @grierja

J.A. Grier

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Facts and fictions from an astronomer, writer, poet, and artist — mixing sci-fi, fantasy, horror, advocacy, critical thinking, art, and wine. Compassion always.

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