What’s in a Name?

The Strange Convergence of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Reality in Astronomical Nomenclature

by Peter Dabbene

William Shakespeare famously wrote, “That which we call a rose/ By any other word would smell as sweet.” But would it, really? Pigsqueak, Lungwort, Bugleweed, and Spiderwort are all very nice plants, but their names set a certain expectation. Their scientific names aren’t much better, sounding like a list of fatal diseases: Bergenia purpurascens, Pulmonaria, Ajuga, and Tradescantia, respectively. A rose, meanwhile, is just the simple, beautiful, memorable rosa.

Humans have consistently demonstrated their tendency to be influenced by all kinds of things, rational or otherwise. As we hear so often today, words (and names) matter.

To whatever extent naming issues affect terrestrial objects, names might be even more important when it comes to extraterrestrial objects. In the average person’s awareness, most celestial bodies aren’t much more than a name.

Names carry meaning, even if their original intent is sometimes lost: Pluto, named after a death god, is thought of favorably because it’s the smallest (and cutest?) of the nine planets many of us grew up learning about, and because of the Disney character thought to be named after it. Meanwhile, mighty Uranus will forever be the “butt” of planetary humor.

Starting With the Stars

Stars often get short shrift when it comes to naming. Some, like Vega (an Arabic name) or Proxima Centauri (Latin, meaning “nearest star of Centarus”), have properly celestial-sounding appellations. There are a few named after individuals (Cervantes and Copernicus, along with E.E. Barnard, an astronomer who got his name on a star — Barnard’s Star — that he didn’t even discover).

While astronomers have designations for many, many stars, the vast majority of stars (all but 313, according to a recent count) are without what most people would consider proper names, known instead only by their clunky scientific nomenclature: “Luyten 726-8A,” “51 Pegasi,” or the classic “BD +5deg 1668.” “PSR0531+219” might be a practical name for a star, but it isn’t one that gets the heart racing or the blood boiling (and I don’t mean in the exposed-to-the-vacuum-of-space way).

Apparently, many people voiced opinions pointing to the star naming system as less than ideal, because in 2001, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory felt the need to issue a press release called “Why Dazzling Stars Are Given Boring But Useful Names.”

There are several companies that offer the opportunity to name a star, at prices ranging from $19.95 for a standard star, to over $100 for a binary star (recommended for couples), along with add-on extras for brightness, location within a constellation, framed certificates, and more. It’s a nice idea, and each website features testimonials from customers who’ve named stars for loved ones who have died, significant others, and pets.

Unfortunately, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an association of professional astronomers, and something of a governing body when it comes to naming astronomical bodies, doesn’t accept any of those names as legitimate. The practice is best summed up by a former New York City consumer affairs commissioner, who said in 1998 that “paying to name stars after loved ones is simply throwing money into a black hole.”

Nearby Planets and Moons

Neighboring planets and moons tend to have more interesting names than stars, largely because so many of these bodies are relatively close (in galactic terms) — including nearly 200 in our solar system alone. Their names mostly come from Greek and Roman mythology, the vestiges of once-dominant cultures writ large across the viewable sky.

There’s also a smattering of Shakespeare and a few offerings from other cultures, including Norse mythology  (Ymir, Skadi) and Hawaiian (Haumea, Namaka). There’s a dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt named Makemake, a nice nod to the creator god of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, though it’s almost too much fun to say to take seriously.

And in tribute to Welsh mythology — or Fleetwood Mac — there’s an asteroid/minor planet named Rhiannon (more on minor planets later). But what once seemed a nice, semi-orderly system of naming is increasingly looking like the wheels have fallen off. Attempts by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to make the process more democratic have shown problems, too.

Pluto, which was named after a suggestion from eleven-year-old schoolgirl Venetia Burney, has been at the center of recent naming news. In 2013, the IAU officially named Pluto’s fourth and fifth moons “Kerberos” and “Styx”, completing one of science fiction’s most accurate “predictions”—in the 1940 novel Calling Captain Future , author Edmond Hamilton referred to three moons of Pluto: Charon, Cerberus, and Styx. Charon was only discovered in 1978, the other two in 2011 and 2012.

Hamilton made a substantially correct educated guess that any moon names would be in keeping with the theme of Pluto, the Roman God of the Underworld. (In Greek mythology, Kerberos is the three-headed dog that guards the underworld, Styx refers to the river that borders it, and Charon is the ferryman who delivers fresh souls there.) Hamilton was slightly off on the final spelling of Kerberos, a change deemed necessary by the IAU because the more-common Latinized spelling, “Cerberus,” had been used in the name of a 1.6-kilometer asteroid, 1865 Cerberus.

If the IAU went by the public poll that was conducted to help name the 4th and 5th moons of Pluto, what’s now Kerberus would have been Vulcan, the top vote-getter — a name that comes from Roman mythology, but is better known as the fictional home of Mr. Spock in Star Trek. Vulcan was rejected in part because the god of fire didn’t quite fit with the “underworld” theme of Pluto’s other mythological names, and because it had already been used for another fictional planet — once believed by some astronomers to orbit between Mercury and the sun, until Einstein proved otherwise. Though Star Trek fans were disappointed, life went on.

In April 2018, the IAU announced that names for surface features of Pluto’s moon Charon had been decided, after consideration of another poll that allowed public suggestions. The IAU’s final names are proof that sometimes, democracy is not best, as they reveal a mish-mosh of cultural influences that would lay waste to the brain of any scientist or astronomy buff attempting to memorize Charon’s geography.

Craters are named for fictional travelers, chasms after fictional ships, and mountains for fiction writers. There are references to a Greek epic poem, Egyptian mythology, The Wizard of Oz, Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, and an assortment of other characters from world folklore and fiction. Some of the biggest vote-getters for the Charon competition were the cast of characters from Star Trek and Star Wars, plus H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, who led the pack in the “Underworld Beings” category. (Complete results can be seen at www.ourpluto.org/tally.)

The wisdom of crowds has proven pretty reliable over time in a lot of fields, but with regard to naming, it’s easy to make a case for a central unifying authority.

The examples of Pluto’s moons and Charon’s features demonstrate a couple of things: one, that for good or ill, fiction (include or exclude mythology in that category, your choice) has guided much of the naming of celestial bodies. They also show the danger of using popular or appropriate names too early (Vulcan, Cerberus) and thereby — under current guidelines, at least — disqualifying them from future consideration.

Planet X

We’re still exploring our solar system, with a heated search on for Planet X, a large body that many scientists believe exists near the edge of the Oort Cloud. If it is found, and if it’s big enough to garner full planetary status, the question of what to name it looms large.

“Persephone” is a name often bestowed upon fictional trans-Neptunian planets, used by sci-fi writers Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and Douglas Adams (though in the latter case, the planet’s nickname is “Rupert”). Persephone is also featured in an old publication called Star Trek Maps (though it was edited out of revised editions), and more recently, in the video game Elite: Dangerous.

A ninth full-sized planet within our solar system would allow the happy return of the mnemonic “My Very Educated Mother Showed Us Nine Planets,” but there’s a slight problem that would need to be ironed out: “Persephone” is Greek, which doesn’t keep with our Roman naming system for planets. The Roman version of Persephone, “Proserpina,” has been used for an asteroid already (26 Proserpina), which might seem to disqualify it, but Persephone has also been used for an asteroid (399 Persephone), so in that respect, they’re even.

Persephone is, to my ear, the more euphonious choice, and its candidacy is supported by another notable exception to Roman naming in our solar system, even without pointing to dwarf planets and their moons:  Uranus.

After its discoverer, William Herschel, offered the name “George’s Star” (Georgium Sidus, after King George III), other astronomers performed an intervention of sorts and suggested “Herschel” (which is almost as good as Douglas Adams’s “Rupert”), before deciding on Ouranos, or Uranus. Why was the Roman equivalent of the name, Caelus, not used instead? One explanation points to the existence of an already-named constellation that used a variant of the name: Caelum Scalptorium.

If we made an exception to the Roman-naming system for Uranus, it’s not hard to justify a second exception for Persephone. But in naming a ninth non-dwarf planet,  I’d be fine with Proserpina, too—anything but “Rupert.”

Minor Planets

Riddle me this, Batman: When is a planet not a planet? Answer: When it’s a minor planet. Minor planets are defined as astronomical objects that orbit the sun, but are not planets or comets. The vast majority of minor planets are asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and there are a lot of them — over 750,000 as of 2018. Because “minor planet” misleadingly implies a small (spherical) planet, I prefer the term “planetoids,” while the preferred scientific nomenclature is now “small Solar System bodies.”

Because there are so many minor planets, they provide ample opportunity to memorialize historical figures who, with all due respect, have, well, minor roles in history. In some cases, recognition might be argued as long overdue — as with the case of “Miguelhernández.” Discovered in 1991, this minor planet was officially recognized by the IAU in a publication dated February 12, 2017, which noted, “Miguel  Hernández was a poet who fought for peace [..]. He was incarcerated in several fascist prison camps until his death [..].”

This is exactly the type of person most observers would want remembered with an astronomical counterpart. Astronomers, a musician, and a civic-minded doctor are also given similar recognition in the document.

And then there are the others. Alas, like Soylent Green, the IAU is made up of people, and sometimes their decisions are questionable. As evidence, I would put forth examples like “Stellamarie,” a minor planet named after the discoverer’s eight-year-old niece; or “Kodai,” named after Kodai Fukushima, who, as far as I can tell, is a very nice, astronomy-minded  young man who made a very nice one-minute video on YouTube proposing the names “Libertas” and “Fortitudo” for a star and its planet. Kodai’s effort was admirable, but I don’t know that proposing a name for a planet is, itself, a planet-naming-worthy achievement. One could also argue that despite the honor, having a planet— however minor—named after you at age 26 might be a lot to live up to, an unwelcome yardstick to measure the rest of one’s life against, as much pressure as praise. It’s a point that’s only amplified given Stella Marie’s youth, not to mention that for the wider public, comparing one’s starless self to an eight-year-old might be more demoralizing than inspirational.

A look at the full list of minor planets named over the years reveals, once again, a readily apparent link between science fiction and reality. Hundreds of minor planets are named for places, rivers, plants, and animals, but many are named for individuals. Alongside bodies called Misterrogers, Cronkite, and Hitchcock are those named for a number of science fiction notables, including Mark Hamill, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Gene Roddenberry.

Other Worlds

With new, more powerful telescopes regularly coming on-line, astronomers are discovering exoplanets — planets outside of our solar system — at an (ahem) astronomical rate. The goal, or perhaps the grail, is to find Earth-like planets that might be capable of supporting life as we know it.

Until now, scientists have been granted the final say in naming planetoids and their various features, but when it comes to a potentially habitable planet — one that would, one day, need to sound appealing enough to attract colonists facing unprecedented hardships — a name takes on a much greater importance.

So far, the list of potentially habitable exoplanets is absent of anything most of us would consider a proper planet name, the closest being a series of planets orbiting the dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1 (or 2MASS J23062928-0502285, if you prefer). Four of the planets, TRAPPIST-1d, 1e, 1f, and 1g, fall in the habitable zone.

The star and planet names come from the tool used to discover them, dubbed the  Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope. But it’s difficult to hear “Trappist” and not make other associations—with the Trappists, a religious order of monks, or maybe the Trappist beer they produce.

As it happens, the beer was the actual inspiration for the telescope’s name, and eventually, those of the star and exoplanets. Truth in advertising would imply that if these Trappist planets are ever colonized, they’ll tend toward an extreme, either known for lots of drunken fun, or for monastic self-denial (not much fun at all).

So what will the first extra-solar colonized planet be called? Much has been written about the new, corporate, and privately funded era of space — how commercial ventures will lead the way to colonizing other planets. If one accepts this premise, it’s not a great leap to extrapolate from the methods of commercial and private ventures on Earth.

Will we have authorities auctioning off 100-year planetary naming rights, in the manner of stadiums and theaters today? The First Bank Planet, Smoothie King Orb, and Planet of KFC Yum! could become standards. A company with its sights set on a distant planet might partially fund a colony ship from the proceeds of an international planet-naming lottery or auction, and make up the difference with sponsorship opportunities.

Spaceships are always depicted as plain gray hulks, but maybe the model is closer to NASCAR, with every square foot of exterior — and possibly interior — area covered with a colorful, revenue-generating patchwork of company logos. Or, aspiring space-moguls like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk might bankroll the first missions to planets they’ll dub Jeff’s Place, Amazon: The Planet, and Alexa, or Elon, Muskworld, and Tesla. It’s not inconceivable; the IAU doesn’t currently allow commercial naming, but money talks — and names.

Religions more active than those of Greek and Roman deities might have their own ideas for planet names, especially those charged with missionary work — after all, what better way to spread your god’s (or gods’) message than to transport it across the galaxy?

Kobol, considered the birthplace of humanity in both Battlestar Galactica TV series, was directly influenced by Kolob, a star or planet in the Mormon faith, and it’s not difficult to imagine a shipload of Mormon astronauts setting off to discover (or create) their own Kolob.

Eden is a commonly used name for colonized planets in science fiction, but what’s appealing or innocent to some people could be equally antagonistic to others. Imagine the political chaos that might ensue if a group decided to name a planet New Jerusalem, for example.

Science fiction, pretty much the only field that’s had cause to explore the first colonized planet question at length, provides plenty of other ideas for planet names, from the grand-sounding (Isaac Asimov’s “Trantor”), to the cute (David Brin’s “Deemi”), to the humorous (Jack Vance’s “Big Planet”, Larry Niven’s “We Made It”). Sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle named a planet in his fictional CoDominium saga after the villain in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron — fiction inspired by fiction.

The problem with all of these names, of course, is that using them on real planets would inevitably inspire comparisons with their fictional counterparts — weighed down by their history, even if it’s fake history.

Maybe one day the stories that feature them will completely fade from recall, effectively wiping the slate clean; or, as with Greek and Roman mythological origins, they will achieve an equilibrium between known and unknown, a perfect blend of familiar and forgotten. But in an era of digital record-keeping and easy accessibility, it’s unlikely that these fictional names, or others like them, will ever be distanced enough in memory to be considered fertile ground for actual planet names.

Earth, Too

Earth itself has inspired many fictional planet names, like Htrae (“Earth” backwards, also known as “Bizarro World” in DC Comics), and Earth 2, the title of a short-lived TV series (interestingly, the planet in question was always referred to as “G889” by its colonizers). But Earth is also the most commonly used basis of comparison for newly located exoplanets, with news reports on television, online, and in print, all referencing “second Earths” regularly, even when the scientists who made the discoveries haven’t actually used that term.

“Super-Earth” is also used frequently, to describe an Earth-like exoplanet with greater mass than Earth; alas, no superpowers are expected to manifest upon arrival, except maybe the usual suspects: the United States. China, Russia.

On occasion, scientists throw the public, and the media, a bone. In 2015, an associate administrator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate crowed about an exoplanet discovery, “This exciting result brings us one step closer to finding an Earth 2.0.” Maybe, in keeping with the software nomenclature model, Earth 2.0 will be a more pleasant place to live than most of Earth 1.0 — a climate like San Diego, year-round, all across the globe, and of course, fewer bugs.

But while some people might see Earth 2.0 as a better — or at least, newer — version of Earth, I suspect most would think of it as a cheap knock-off, not entirely original. Even though probability demands that it would be dramatically different in countless ways, most reactions would probably run toward a shrug of the shoulders, and a “so what?” attitude.

When it comes to an Earth-like planet that could attract colonists — one that could literally be a second Earth — don’t we need to come up with a better name than…  Second Earth?

Sub-Par Solutions

While Earth 2.0 — or perhaps Earth: The Sequel — might seem like an uninspired name, there would be a certain advantage to simply transferring the root name of our planet to others that support life. The name “Earth” would become a mark of quality, an indicator of a life-sustaining environment, and much as road trippers might pass up a dubious-looking Mom ‘n’ Pop diner in favor of the recognizable brand name of a McDonald’s, there would be no doubt about where you’d want to visit for an intergalactic rest stop: Earth 2, Earth 15, Earth 327, yes; Jakkarto, Malendra, and Tooroosie, no.

Or perhaps planet names could convey that they’re kind of like Earth, but differ in key ways: Dearth might be a very nice planet, but insufficient in natural resources; Girth would be the perfect name for a wider-than-Earth planet, or a planet for unusually wide people. Or, as a BBC Radio program listener once suggested, a planet named Mearth might be like Earth, only funnier. Alas, a shortage of Earth sound-alike words makes this an amusing, intriguing, but ultimately futile thought experiment.

As much as the current, loose naming guidelines might be lacking, there’s no doubt they help to mitigate the confusion. A more satisfactory system might allow a wide variety of names, but use similar roots, prefixes, or suffixes to indicate commonality between two planets, or a series of planets.

Maybe, in the tradition of John Wilkins’s analytical language, all the gas planets could end in -us, or -n, or all the rocky planets end with a vowel. Looking at English words that end in -us, this seems a real solution, with Nexus, Ramus, Solus, and Zebus standing out as proper-sounding planet names. Unfortunately, for every argument, there is a counter-argument, and in this case, it’s the words Mucus, Bogus, Sinus, and Dufus.

The video game No Man’s Sky allows players to explore a virtually limitless universe and name the planets they discover, and thus offers a window into the psychology of the masses, via planets named  Don’t Go Here, Big Buttistan, Gary Busey, and Go away its mine! [sic]. Granted, it’s just a game, so ridiculous planet names can be excused, but it does provide another, more extreme illustration of why the population at large might not be trusted to name responsibly.

A Modest Proposal

I believe the best naming system would be a very broad one, mapping out space into divisions for every letter of the alphabet: all the “A” planet names go in one area, all the “B” names in another, etc. While undeniably English-centric, this system seems considerate of future space travelers; I can only relate it to being lost in the pre-GPS era, driving around and seeing street names with similar themes (women’s names, historical figures, tree types) to the intended destination, and thus knowing that the right street wasn’t too far away. Though, given the extreme distances between planets, the comparison suffers a bit.

Still, with some system better than no system, I ask you to bear with my proposal, and imagine the first letter of every planet name decided, simply, and uncontroversially, based on its position relative to Earth. I would submit that for the remainder of a given planet’s name, the best option may be to eliminate any intentional reference or meaning, and just start fresh by using completely random planet names.

If one associates pre-existing names with their history — whatever that may be — they might seem to be not just an appropriate tribute to those specific stories or myths, but links to the whole history and tradition of human imagination. But those links to predecessors, and human imagination’s past, would make such planet names mere palimpsests, never able to completely erase the name’s previous history.

Plus, as we travel farther into the galaxy, we’d eventually run out of top-tier cultural names (some might argue that’s already begun), and the quality and significance of the names we bestow would inevitably suffer. Does anyone want to live on a planet named after Matshishkapeu, the Innu spirit of farts, or Dogberry, from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing?

Perhaps it’s best to clean the slate and start fresh, with names that have no antecedent.

It doesn’t seem like we’re great at inventing completely new names, but there is hope in randomness (though not total randomness, as I don’t think a planet called “Lpwdqzbvj” would be a good fit for anyone, except maybe some cats and the keyboards they walk across).

If recycled names show a certain lack of imagination, random names might first seem to abandon imagination altogether; they might also seem unpoetic, or unromantic.  But I believe randomness could pave the way for a new, exciting future in a way that other options wouldn’t. The appeal of these names would be that they have no history and no baggage.

Ironically, randomness would largely eliminate the unpredictability of the human factor which, although it finally approved the name Pluto for the famous dwarf planet, also offered suggestions of Percival, Constance, Lowellofa, Zxyxmal, and Jean.

The previously-mentioned No Man’s Sky offers a random name generator at nmsgen.com; fantasynamegenerators.com also has a planet namer, and there are many more. A quick run-through resulted in some pretty decent-sounding names:  Zutis, Linnurn, Thusypso, and Aenope.

For people who are repelled by the idea of random planet names, there is still hope — the problem is one of precedent, so if a person created a truly original name, the same goal might be accomplished.

Meanwhile, if my proposals are never realized, and planets do end up getting names that have been used before, I have a suggestion. Earth is categorized as a rocky planet (as opposed to a gas planet), and any planets ripe for colonization would be rocky planets, too.

What better name for the first colonized planet, then, than a word derived from the Greek word for “rock”? I’m referring, of course, to “Peter.”


Peter Dabbene

Peter Dabbene has written the graphic novels ARK and Robin Hood, the story collections Prime Movements and Glossolalia, and a novel, Mister Dreyfus’ Demons. His poetry has been published in many literary journals, and collected in the photo book Optimism. His latest books are Spamming the Spammers, More Spamming the Spammers, and The End of Spamming the Spammers. He writes a monthly column for the Hamilton Post newspaper, in addition to a graphic novel blog for Foreword Reviews. You can find him at his website www.peterdabbene.com as well as on Facebook.