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.
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.
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.
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.
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.