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Why You Can't Name New Moons And Planets Anything You Want

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Why You Can't Name New Moons And Planets Anything You Want

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Why You Can't Name New Moons And Planets Anything You Want

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Pluto may no longer be an official planet, but it still has moons. And yesterday, astronomers named two of them. The names were chosen by Internet vote, but the most popular choice was rejected by astronomy's highest authority. The decision is the latest in an ongoing fight over intergalactic naming rights as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Astronomers already have an official name for each of the tiny moons, but they don't roll off the tongue.

DR. MARK SHOWALTER: Pluto, space, S, slash, 2012, space, left parenthesis, 134340, right parenthesis, space, one.

BRUMFIEL: Mark Showalter is a researcher at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. He led the team that discovered Pluto's new moons. As the discoverers, the team is allowed to choose a catchier title.

SHOWALTER: So we opened up a website that included a ballot page where people could just check the boxes of the names they liked best.

BRUMFIEL: They also took suggestions. Over Twitter, William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on the TV series "Star Trek," suggested Vulcan, the name of the home planet of Mr. Spock. Trekkies around the world got online and voted it way up. It was the runaway choice.

SHOWALTER: I actually liked the name, and we did propose it to the International Astronomical Union. But, yeah, I kind of knew all along that this was going to be a hard sell.

BRUMFIEL: The International Astronomical Union, a global consortium of astronomers that sets the rules for naming things like asteroids and moons throughout the solar system. The IAU said no. Vulcan is already taken. Thierry Montmerle is the organization's general secretary.

DR. THIERRY MONTMERLE: It corresponded to a hypothetical planet that was supposed to orbit between the sun and Mercury.

BRUMFIEL: In the 1800s. But there were other problems. Under IAU moon rules, Pluto's moon should've been named after mythical underworld figures. Also, Vulcan might have infringed on the copyright of the original "Star Trek" series. Montmerle says the team should've checked with the union before starting the competition.

MONTMERLE: Any initiative that aims at public naming of soft objects should start by consulting the IAU. The IAU has the expertise to answer such question as, do we have the right to use this name, and if not, why, et cetera.

BRUMFIEL: Pluto's moons were eventually called Kerberos and Styx. But many astronomers think it's time to take another look at the whole naming process.

MARK SYKES: We have an explosion these days of various places to name.

BRUMFIEL: Mark Sykes is director of the Planetary Science Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to planetary exploration. Powerful telescopes are turning up new objects like the moons around Pluto. And now astronomers are finding hundreds of planets orbiting other stars. Pluto's moons aside, these extra solar planets are where the real fight is headed. Right now, they have numerical identifiers, but no popular names. Again, IAU chief Thierry Montmerle.

MONTMERLE: The IAU is working on some rules to involve the public.

BRUMFIEL: The rules would help keep naming orderly, but they're slow in coming and new planets are stacking up. Mark Sykes thinks they should step aside and let astronomers and the public get creative.

SYKES: The IAU could try to claim the universe, but a lot of star systems will be falling through its fingers.

BRUMFIEL: Other astronomers are calling for calm. What matters, they say, is not what we call the planets. It's what they can teach us about our place in the universe. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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