Nearly 100 nations are all signed up and ready to go, with the next step involving national campaigns to select names and provide the public with an opportunity to vote. The point of all this, in the words of the IAU, is to “create awareness of our place in the Universe and to reflect on how the Earth would potentially be perceived by a civilization on another planet”.
A lofty aim, to be sure, but the contest does serve a practical purpose. Astronomers have detected nearly 4,000 exoplanets over the past three decades, and virtually all of them are stuck with unwieldy scientific designations like KMT-2017-BLG-1146Lb, OGLE-2013-BLG-0132Lb and 2MASS J19383260+4603591 b, just to name three.
The IAU is the ruling body for such matters, and it’s launching the new campaign to commemorate its 100th anniversary. This is the second IAU contest of its kind, the first one being the 2015 NameExoWorlds campaign, in which 31 exoplanets from 19 planetary systems were named by the public. Or at least, the public got to vote on a pre-selected list of 247 names proposed by astronomy groups, universities, planetariums and the like. These were in turn vetted by the IAU. The odds of being able to vote for Planet McPlanetface or Cybertron, therefore, are slim to none. That said, some fairly unconventional and strange names were selected in the 2015 contest, including Spe, Orbitar, Poltergeist, Dagon and AEgir.
The IAU is now doing it again, but on a much larger scale. Every participating country will have a star and its lone exoplanet (systems with more than one known planet were excluded) assigned to them. In all cases, a designated star can be seen from its assigned country and bright enough to spot with small telescopes.
The national campaigns will take place from June to November 2019, with the results subject to a vetting process by the IAU100 NameExoWorlds Steering Committee. Results will be announced this December. Countries not signed up yet have until July 30, 2019 to do so.
Featured illustration: ESO/L. Calçada