By Marty Russell
A few years back I wrote a column on the subject of why every moon in the solar system – even Mars’ tiny Phobos – has a name except our own. To remedy the situation I asked readers to submit suggestions for a name. Not surprisingly, the few replies I received all wanted to name the moon after themselves. That’s fine but then we’d have to change all the songs and poems that mention the moon and somehow “Bob River” just doesn’t have the same ring as “Moon River.”
It’s usually the prerogative of the discoverer of a new astronomical object to name it – like Halley’s Comet – but there have been a few notable exceptions. For instance, the once-planet now planetoid Pluto was named by an 11-year-old British girl named Venetia Burney shortly after its discovery in 1930.
The story goes that Burney suggested the name over breakfast with her grandfather, a librarian at Oxford University, who then passed the suggestion on to a professor of astronomy at the school. The young Burney said she came up with the name simply because Pluto, the god of the underworld, was the only Roman god who didn’t already have a planet named for them.
But astronomers at first rejected the idea as too, well, satanic. Their suggestions included names like Minerva and Onehtn, meaning “first trans-Neptune.” But the astronomers at Lowell Observatory, where the discovery was made, loved Pluto because the first two letters were the initials of the observatory’s founder, Percival Lowell. And so Pluto became Pluto. Walt Disney later appropriated the name and gave it to his cartoon dog.
Burney died just over a year ago, on April 30, 2009, at the age of 90 after seeing her beloved Pluto demoted to a new class of cosmic objects now known as plutoids.
Now astronomers are turning once again to children to help name some of the many unnamed objects in the solar system. There are approximately 240,000 asteroids that have been discovered out there that as yet have not been named, only given numbers. Granted one of them could hit the Earth and cause another mass extinction as happened with the dinosaurs but wouldn’t it be better to know you’ve been doomed by Asteroid Bob rather than just Asteroid X37492?
The Naming X contest has three age groups: kids up to age 11 (an homage to Burney?), kids 12 and older and school groups. The deadline is May 30 and five winners will be announced on June 14. The only rules are that names can’t be longer than 16 letters, must be pronounceable (unlike Onehtn) and can’t honor any living politicians (who would want to?). And even though if you drop the “A” – asteroid becomes “a steroid,” presumably no baseball players.
For more information on the contest, check out Sky and Telescope magazine’s web site.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.