NASA to Reexamine Nicknames for Cosmic Objects

Planetary nebula N-2392 (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — Distant cosmic objects such as planets, galaxies, and nebulae are sometimes referred to by the scientific community with unofficial nicknames. As the scientific community works to identify and address systemic discrimination and inequality in all aspects of the field, it has become clear that certain cosmic nicknames are not only insensitive, but can be actively harmful. NASA is examining its use of unofficial terminology for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 


First Official Names Given to Features on Asteroid Bennu

This flat projection mosaic of asteroid Bennu shows the locations of the first 12 surface features to receive official names from the International Astronomical Union. The accepted names were proposed by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team members, who have been mapping the asteroid in detail over the last year. Bennu’s surface features are named after birds and bird-like creatures in mythology, and the places associated with them. (Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

by Nancy Neal Jones
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

GREENBELT, Md. — Asteroid Bennu’s most prominent boulder, a rock chunk jutting out 71 ft (21.7 m) from the asteroid’s southern hemisphere, finally has a name. The boulder – which is so large that it was initially detected from Earth – is officially designated Benben Saxum after the primordial hill that first arose from the dark waters in an ancient Egyptian creation myth.  


Asteroid Bennu’s Features to be Named After Mythical Birds

This image shows boulder formations on asteroid Bennu’s surface. It was taken by the PolyCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on April 11, 2019 from a distance of 2.8 miles (4.5 km). (Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

Greenbelt, Md. (NASA PR) — Working with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team, the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) approved the theme “birds and bird-like creatures in mythology” for naming surface features on asteroid (101955) Bennu.


Locations Named on Asteroid Ryugu

Asteroid Ryugu photographed by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft. (Credit: JAXA)

TOKYO (JAXA PR) — Place names for locations on the surface of Ryugu were discussed by Division F (Planetary Systems and Bioastronomy) of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (hereafter IAU WG) and approved in December 2018. We will introduce the place names in this article and the background to their selection.


NASA Extends Campaign to Name Features on Pluto

New Horizons spacecraft (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)
New Horizons spacecraft (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — The public has until Friday, April 24 to help name new features on Pluto and its orbiting satellites as they are discovered by NASA’s New Horizons mission.

Announced in March, the agency wants to give the worldwide public more time to participate in the agency’s mission to Pluto that will make the first-ever close flyby of the dwarf planet on July 14.


IAU Increases Plutoid Total to Three

Credit: R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech), JPL-Caltech, NASA

Dwarf Planet Near Pluto Gets a Name

“A dwarf planet orbiting beyond Neptune has been designated the third plutoid in the solar system and given the name Makemake, the International Astronomical Union said on Saturday.

“The red methane-covered dwarf planet formerly known as 2005 FY9 or ‘Easterbunny’ is named after a Polynesian creator of humanity and god of fertility.”

Pluto: No Longer a Dwarf, But Still Not a Planet

Pluto and its satellite, Charon, in happier times. Image credit: Dr. R. Albrecht, ESA/ESO Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility; NASA.

It looks like it is time to revise those astronomy textbooks once again. For the second time in as many years, the world’s astronomers have reclassified Pluto. The International Astronomical Union has issued a statement saying that small bodies such as Pluto would be known by a new name: plutoid.

Two years ago, the IAU sparked a major controversy by reclassifying the distance world as a dwarf planet. The decision seemed especially upsetting to many schoolchildren, who identify with the tiny world that hovered forever on the periphery of a Solar System populated by much larger, grown up planets.

Whether this latest decision will mollify or mystify children is yet to be seen. However, it doesn’t really remove the confusion over why the IAU just didn’t leave well enough alone two years ago. Pluto orbits the sun, has an atmosphere, and possesses three satellite (including one, Charon, that’s half its size). In other words, it seems to fit most people’s definition of a planet. Why the change?

What was really confusing, however, was why astronomers would tempt fate by demoting a planet named after the Roman god of the underworld. One assumes they’re not very superstitious. Otherwise, they might be a tad worried that Pluto will exact his revenge on them, if not in this life then definitely in the next.