Soon, You’ll Officially Be Able To Name An Exoplanet... Sort Of

You can't come up with the names, but you can choose from several IAU-approved titles

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GJ 581c, seen in the foreground, is one of more than 300 exoplanets that could receive a new name this year.Artist's Impression, ESO via Wikimedia Commons

Exoplanets such as “OGLE-05-071L” and “HD 104985” could get catchier names this year.

The International Astronomical Union—the organization that names planetary bodies—has just launched the first phase of its contest to let non-astronomers name planets in other solar systems. Beginning today, astronomical organizations will choose from a list of 305 exoplanets, deciding which 20 or 30 will get pronounceable names. Then, in February, those same organizations will get to nominate names for those exoplanets (since there are certain conventions the names have to follow). Finally, the rest of us will be able to vote for the best names in June.

Though companies like Uwingu have been raising money by hosting contests to name exoplanets, the IAU has pointed out that those naming rights are meaningless since they wouldn't be recognized by the rest of the astronomical community. Popular Science has argued that the IAU should embrace the public's desire to be involved in naming exoplanets, so this contest is a step in the right direction.

It's somewhat unfortunate that the public can't be involved in the first few stages of the selection process, but that decision is probably the result of a fumble in 2013. While hosting an IAU-sanctioned contest to name two of Pluto's moons, the SETI Institute allowed the general public to suggest names. William Shatner nominated 'Vulcan', which won the overwhelming majority of votes. But much to the dismay of Star Trek fans, the IAU threw the name out since the name doesn't have anything to do with the Greek or Roman underworld, which is the theme for Plutonian moons.

So if, like me, you’re sad that you can’t nominate a name for an exoplanet, just remember that it's William Shatner's fault.

*Just kidding, we love you, Captain.