Primordial Light: Who Names These Things?
This Page is a Work in Progress

The International Astronomical Union is the internationally recognized naming authority for all astronomical objects. It is the IAU that sanctions the names of everything from tiny comets to superclusters of galaxies. The IAU generally does not propose the names, however.

Comets are named after their discoverers. If more than one person reports the discovery of a comet simultaneously (not uncommon) the comet may have more than one name. Comet Hale-Bopp was discovered and reported independently by Alan Hale in New Mexico and Thomas Bopp in Arizona on July 23, 1995. Comets need not be discovered by, or named after people. There are a number of comets whose names contain SWAN. SWAN is the acronym of Solar Wind Anisotropies, which is one of 12 instrument on a spacecraft called SOHO—Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.

Lunar craters are named for astronomers and others who have explored the moon, either through telescopes or by going there.

Planets are named after gods and goddesses of the classical era, while their moons are named after their offspring. Mars, for example, is named for the Roman god of war, Mars. Mars has two moons, named Deimos (panic) and Phobos (fear). Deimos and Phobos are sons of Ares, the Greek counterpart to Mars. All large Martian craters are named for deceased scientists who have contributed to the study of Mars, all small craters are named for villages of the earth, all large valleys are named for Mars in various languages, and all small valleys are named for Earth's classical or modern rivers. On Jupiter's satellite, Europa, all craters are named for Celtic gods and heroes. The craters of Venus (the Roman goddess of love) are named for famous women. They bear such names as Addams, Alcott, Cleopatra, Eve, Mona Lisa, Piaf, Woolfe, Xantippe,et al.

Minor planets, or asteroids are assigned a number by the IAU and may be named by their discoverer. Thus, we have a wide variety of asteroid names. Asteroids are named after spouses, pets, cities, and all manner of things. Asteroids may be named after living persons (or house cats.) There are asteroids named after Roland Christen and Al Nagler, two well known telescope makers. An asteroid that is very far from the Sun, and thus extremely cold, was named Sedna after the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the cold arctic ocean. The largest known minor planet is named Eris, but before it got that name it was unoficially called Xena, after the Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless) of televison fame. (I prefer Xena to Eris, but I wasn’t consulted.) Eris is larger than Pluto, which was formerly designated as a planet by the IAU, but demoted to minor planet status because of its small size and an orbit that is unlike that of the eight larger planets. This demotion aroused considerable opposition among both astronomers and the public (especilly school children) and it may be reviewed at the next IAU meeting.

Here is a report on the August, 2000, meeting of the IAU from a British web site:
“Characters from the Tempest, the late Carl Sagan, and the 18th century Astronomer Royal Nathaniel Bliss are among dozens of new names assigned to moons and features on moons and planets in the solar system and approved today at the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Manchester. The IAU is the only body with international authority to name astronomical bodies and features on them. Names are confirmed every three years, at each General Assembly.

“The working group for planetary system nomenclature (WGPSN, which includes the UK astronomer and broadcaster, Dr. Patrick Moore) examines every proposal. The committee selected the names after submissions from the discoverers, cartographers and spaceflight engineers investigating new satellites, asteroids and craters throughout the solar system. Along with Earth-based observatories, space probes such as Galileo and Clementine have discovered a plethora of new moons, craters and other features, all of which need names for the benefit of present-day astronomers and any future explorers.

“Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’ had already been the inspiration for the names of some of the moons of Uranus discovered earlier, such as Ariel and Miranda. They will now be joined by Prospero, the magician master of the island in the play, Setebos who enslaves Ariel, and Stephano, the ship's butler. These names replace the less interesting temporary designations, S/1999 U3, U1 and U2 respectively. The names Caliban and Sycorax, provisionally given to two moons of Uranus discovered in 1997, were also formally confirmed.

“In the asteroid belt, Eugenia’s recently discovered satellite is named Petit-Prince after the son of Eugenie, the empress of Napoleon III. Craters on the dark asteroid Mathilde are named after coal basins around the world.

“Nathaniel Bliss, the 4th Astronomer Royal who died after just 18 months in his post at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich will give his name to a lunar ring between the lunar crater Plato and Mt. Piton. Bliss, who served from 1762-1764, was until now the only Astronomer Royal without the honour of a named body or feature.

“The late Carl Sagan, who is remembered for his contributions to planetary research and as one of the most successful popularisers of astronomy will be honoured with a 95-km-wide crater near the equator on the planet Mars.

“Features on the near-Earth asteroid Eros, currently being observed by the orbiting NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft, are to be named after great lovers in history and literature. They include Cupid, Lolita and Don Quixote. Galileo, the first astronomer to use a telescope, probably would not have approved. In the 17th century he refused to accept the proposed names of Jupiter's largest satellites as they commemorated the illicit lovers of Jupiter in classical mythology.”
Stars: As far as I know, only stars that can be seen with the unaided eye have proper names. The remainder of the vast number of stars that have been catalogued have only designations, generally based on a serial number in a catalog. All named stars are in catalogs, so they all have designations in addition to their names. And most cataloged stars appear in multiple catalogs, and thus have several designations. There is a star named HIP 14576 in the Hipparcos catalog (from the European Space Agency’s Hipparcos satellite). This star is visible to the unaided eye, and it was named Algol by the medieval Arab astronomers. That is the name by which it is commonly known today. Algol means “The Ghoul“ (the English word ghoul comes from the Arabic gol). The Arabs named it that because it is a variable star, and unlike all (or perhaps almost all) other variables, Algol’s cyclic dimming and brightening are of sufficient magnitude to be seen by the unaided eye. Star names come to us from Arab astronomers as well as Greek and other sources. One of the most famous stars is named Betelgeuse, for example. Is it really pronounced “beetle juice?” Not if you’re a stickler. The name Betelgeuse is based on a medieval mis-transliteration of the Arabic name Yed al-Jawz. The Arabic letter yeh that is equivalent to our I or Y differs from the Arabic bah that is equivalent to B only by the position of small dots. Yed al-Jawz means “Arm of the Giant,” the giant being Orion, where Betelgeuse is found. Also found in Orion is Rigel, which means foot in Arabic. Some stars, including Betelgeuse and Rigel, are also identified by a Flamsteed number. In this system, Betelgeuse is known as Alpha Orionis and Rigel is called Beta Orionis. Alpha, the first letter in the Greek alphabet, signifies that the star is the brightest in Orion. Orionis is the Latin genitive version of the constellation name. Every constellation has such a Latin genitive, even if the constellation name is not of Latin origin.
Deep-sky objects such as nebulae, galaxies,star clusters, and dust clouds (sometimes called dark nebulae), often have popular names that are derived from their shapes. Thus, we have the Rosette Nebula, and, side-by-side, the North American Nebula and the Pelican Nebula. Astronomers, however, tend to call them by their catalog numbers. There is not just one catalog of deep-sky objects, however. One of the largest and most widely used catalogs is the New General Catalog, begun in 1888, and the Index Catalog, begun in 1895. Together these catalogs are referred to as the NGC/IC. You will see many objects in my photos on this site that have NGC or IC designations.These catalogs are not stuck in time, but are maintained regularly.

Possibly the most famous catalog of deep-sky objects, especially among amateur astronomers, is the Messier Catalog. Charles Messier was a French comet hunter who lived from 1730 to 1817. It is said that he compiled his catalog as a reference for fuzzy objects (he had a relatively small telescope, and optics in the 18th century were not as good as they are today) that could be mistaken for comets. If Messier thought he saw a comet he had only refer to his catalog to be check that it wasn't a deep sky object that he had seen previously. Messier and his contemporaries had no idea what the “faint fuzzies” they were seeing actually were. It was not until the 20th Century that it became understood that many of those nebulous areas are galaxies like our own with billions of stars.

There are hundreds of other catalogs that are named after the person or the institution that iniatiated them, the telescope with which the catalog objects were first observed, the satellite (including the Hubble Space Telescope) that observed the object, etc.
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