Naming planets

Saturday 16 September 2006

Planets have been in the news a lot lately, what with Pluto being demoted and all. Yesterday brought the announcement of a puffy planet larger than Jupiter. This is fascinating stuff, but here’s what I don’t get: how do they choose the names for these distant planets? Here in our neighborhood, scientists choose mythological names that might mean something. So the troublemaker out near Pluto was named Eris.

But the new puffy planet has been named HAT-P-1, while another planet mentioned alongside it is HD 209458b. I wondered where these names came from. The article finally makes clear that HAT-P-1 was found by a network of telescopes named HAT, so I guess it’s the first planet found with that network. But that means that a future HAT-P-2 could be on the other side of the galaxy, hundreds of light-years from HAT-P-1. And poor HD 209458b: is there an HD 209458a? Why not take the time to give them more interesting names?


Sylvain Galineau 1:51 PM on 16 Sep 2006
HD refers to the Henry Draper catalog. Most of these acronyms do refer to catalogs produced by different astronomical surveys. Some general info here. The more recent ones can even be automated and the names assigned by software. Astronomers not only need unambiguous references, they are dealing with a universe of objects somewhat bigger than our dictionaries. You could run out of 'interesting' names very quickly if you were not careful with what you choose to name.

There may also be a practical international angle. What makes a moniker interesting or easy to remember for you and I may not be so interesting or memorable in China, India, Kazakhstan, Botswana or a myriad other places where greek gods or a TV warrior princess make no sense at all, assuming they can even be pronounced. For them, Saturn or Pluto are about as catchy as HD 78563.

ID numbers are hard to remember for the non-initiated but they are unambiguous and do not require localization, which may matter for scientists. And avoids lengthy arguments of dubious value.

I will admit recurring experiences may have biased me a bit. I once had to orient a Japanese visitor with a very limited English towards the 'Grand Cayman' conference room at the office and the poor guy kept asking for a room number instead, because those he understood fine. That name was not interesting to him at all. Same thing recently happened on the Microsoft campus and I was so relieved I could give them a boring building number instead. They were quite happy with that. Thank God it wasn't 'go to the Rainier's Paradox building' or some other stupid 'interesting' name someone cooked up a decade prior.

Reserving names for the most important and/or rare things makes sense.

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