Now, a new company wants to sell you the privilege of naming planets outside our solar system. Is this petty planetary hucksterism, or a good idea?
Right now, planetary nomenclature — the naming of planets, planetary features, moons, etc. — is controlled by the International Astronomical Union. But the IAU's naming conventions are notoriously weird, restrictive, and contradictory. For example: there's no penis allowed on Venus, unless it's old penis. If we ever want to see hundreds of billions of exoplanets named, we need to loosen things up a little bit.
Alan Stern thinks he has a solution. His company, Uwingu, wants to ask the public for help, not unlike what the SETI Institute is currently doing for Pluto's two as-yet-unnamed moons. The difference is he wants to charge people $0.99 to nominate names for consideration. Any name, he tells New Scientist, as long as it's not "profane or pejorative." Which... yeah. Have fun filtering for that.
In any case, by democratizing the process of naming planets, Stern hopes to compile a database of potential names numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Names will be voted on and thereby ranked by the public. Top names will then be submitted to exoplanet scientists. It's all very democratic, and on one hand this is really wonderful. On the other, Stern says he expects there to be a lot of interesting contests — "maybe Lady Gaga versus Madonna" — so it's also quite terrifying. Who wants to see a planet named Madonna or Lady Gaga when it could just as soon be named Asimov or Bradbury? (Fortunately, Stern says scifi names are particularly well-represented in the current list of names compiled by Uwingu.)
The good news is that with all the exoplanets out there, it's not like there will be any shortage of opportunities to see your name of choice immortalized in space. So if Kepler 16-b (the first Tatooine-like planet — i.e. a planet orbiting two stars — ever discovered) winds up getting named Ke$ha instead of, well, Tatooine, it's not like it's the end of the world; there are still plenty of other circumbinary planets out there ready to be named in honor of Luke's home planet. Similarly, it's not like there's any shortage of super massive, gaseous planets out there for you to name after your ex.
That said, the sheer number of exoplanets that remain undiscovered is kind of a double-edged sword. Sure, the fact that planets are always being discovered means there's no shortage of naming opportunities, but then what's to keep us from giving out all the unequivocally awesome, descriptive, or iconic names prematurely? . Do we really want to risk naming CD-35 2722 b (the most massive exoplanet discovered to date, with over 10,000 Earth masses) "Yo Momma" when a more massive planet could be discovered any day now?
Another issue: sure, humans are creative, but are we 100+ billion names creative? Do we need to bring surnames into the equation?
These are all questions worth considering. Every time the Kepler mission announces a batch of newly discovered planets, the need for revised naming procedures grows more urgent. We are open to your suggestions on how best to proceed.