A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Showing posts with label naming. Show all posts
Showing posts with label naming. Show all posts

The redemption of Snow White (Part 2)

(read Part 1)

One of the nicest things about science is that, usually, when you’re wrong  you’re just wrong.  There is no use sitting around arguing about it or trying to persuade someone to change his mind, you’re just plain wrong and the universe has explained it to you. Game over. Thanks for playing. Try again later. Next?

Only there really was no “next.” Red? For the most part, colors of objects in the Kuiper belt are relatively mysterious, so there wasn’t much of story there. Snow White remained nicknamed Snow White, despite the now obvious inappropriateness of the name, but it mostly became known as a moderately large object in the Kuiper belt that didn’t have a real name. As I mused in this space 2 1/2  years ago, Snow White needed a bailout. By which I meant, we needed to find out something interesting about it or it was never going to be worth talking about, much less naming. As I said back then, "Snow white? Well, it’s just a big Kuiper belt object."

And then something really interesting happened: Snow White got brighter.  While observing a slew of Kuiper belt objects at the Keck observatory two years ago, we swung the telescope around to Snow White and were shocked to find out that it was almost two times brighter than we had expected.

Orcus Porcus

No, that’s not going to be the name for the satellite of Orcus. But it was suggested a surprising number of times, and it did make me laugh every time I read it.
When I decided, on a whim, to throw open the naming of the moon of Orcus, I thought I’d get a few suggestions here and there and make a quick decision. More than 1000 suggestions later I’m a bit overwhelmed and thoroughly torn. There were good names, silly names, scholarly names, names of people’s pets and wives and girlfriends (never husbands or boyfriends, though, which is interesting). Names came from came – not surprisingly – from Etruscan mythology, but also Norse, Aztec, Greek, Hindu, and many more. There were references to current media in all forms, there was word play, and there were made up names that simply sounded good (or at least someone thought they sounded good).
After sorting through all of the suggestions, as few interesting names/themes stand out.
First, many attempts were made to fit in to the Etruscan origins of Orcus itself. I will admit that these always had the inside track in my mind. We’ll get back to this in a minute, but first, some of the more popular names and themes that I had not originally anticipated:
Disney-related. With Orcus being described as the anti-Pluto there was some sentiment to pull in Disney mythology instead of Etruscan mythology. I’m not opposed to the general idea of moving beyond ancient mythology, so I thought about these. But the problem with all of these names, I felt, was that there was no connection to Orcus, only to Pluto.
Dungeons and Dragons related. Unbeknownst to me, Orcus has been a major figure in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons for the past 30 years. To be fair, though, the phrase “unbeknownst to me” is not exactly true. It really should be “unremembered by me.” My father bought one of the original Dungeons & Dragons sets for my brother and I back in 1976 as a way of keeping his nerdy science fiction loving boys occupied during weekend visits. I will admit to having been an avid player throughout high school. It was a great outlet for a nerdy science fiction loving boy. And though I haven’t thought about it in nearly 30 years, I got sudden senses of nostalgia from all of the D&D related suggestions. I thought of those first few times sitting with my brother and my father (my sister thought we were all crazy) in his apartment trying to figure this stuff out.
But, but, but… Could I really give a name that will stick around for years (hundreds of years? thousands of years? I have no idea) based on a fantasy game that has only been around for thirty years? Would astronomers in 200 years look back on a name like that and think it was a quaint anachronism or just kind of dorky? Maybe. The connections to Orcus are good, even if the mythology is recent.
Tokien related. Many people noted that the word “Orc”, the foot-soldier bad guys from Lord of the Rings, is said to be derived from Orcus (possibly by way of Beowulf) and suggested related names. I should have the same flash backs to nerdy-science-fiction childhood for these suggestions, but I don’t, and I suddenly realized why. Those flashbacks memories seem to keep being overrun by replaced mental images of Elijah Wood and friends running around New Zealand.
There is the same concern about ephemeral popular culture, though these days Orcs are pretty mainstream. But, still, the connection is to the potential origin of the word Orc, as opposed to being to Orcus himself. Somehow, again, that seems not quite right to me.
Silly related. Perhaps the biggest laugh I had when reading these came from someone suggesting “Mindy.” Mindy, of course, was the counterpart to Robin Williams’ Mork. Who was from Ork. The other surprisingly common silly suggestion was “Fiona.” As in, Fiona, bride of Shreck. Shreck, of course, is an Ogre. And then there was – frequently! – “otulP” as in Pluto, backwards. Surprisingly, the more appropriate “norahC’ as in Charon, backwards, rarely showed up.
Un related. People, don’t even start with me. Colbert? Seriously? When people were talking about my discovery of Eris did Stephen Colbert have me on his show? No, he did not. He instead had Neil Tyson. When Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet did Stephen Colbert have me on his show? No, he did not. He instead had Neil Tyson. When Neil Tyson wrote a book about the demotion of Pluto did Stephen Colbert have me on his show? No, he did not. He instead had, well he had Neil Tyson. People, I have this to say: Stephen Colbert is dead to me. And I don’t mean “dead” in a “now-that-he’s-dead-and-in-Hades-hanging-out-with-Orcus-I-can-name-the-satellite-after-him” sort of way, either.
Whale related. Orcus sounds an awful lot like Orcas, as in the “killer whales.” The name Shamu was a shoe-in here, but I liked better the names of the real-life Shamu’s real-life children. Someone even suggested that the name be related to Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Island off of the coast of Seattle. It is a well kept secret that part of the appeal of the original name “Orcus” for this Kuiper belt object was that it sounds like the island. My wife Diane lived on Orcus Island through her high school years. We go back to visit as often as we can. The name was a small present to her. She has, of course, thoroughly forgotten about this by now. But I could indeed revive her memory by naming the satellite after something related. One summer while we were visiting and playing our typical game of “let’s pick up a real estate guide and fantasize about houses we can’t afford” I became enamored of this one house that was on a tiny island just off of Orcas Island. You have to go back and forth to Orcas by motorboat to get your groceries, visit your favorite coffee shop, or walk more than 200 yards at a time. I talked about it all the time and how much I would love to have a house on an island like that. Diane became worried that I might actually be serious. I have, in the past, lived in odd places like sailboats and cabins in the woods with no running water. I might have it in me. I think that just to keep Diane a little on her toes, it would be fun to remind her of this time and name the satellite “Crane Island.” But, really, Orcus is not Orcas. And not even Shamu. So I sadly have to pass on this one.
Finally, we get to the more ancient mythology. As I admitted earlier, my heart was always here, though I was willing to consider these other themes.
Overall, the suggestions of and votes for Greek, Roman, and Etruscan mythological characters exceeded all of the other suggestions by a large amount.
The top contenders were Prosperina (a Latinized version of Persephone, wife of Pluto), Vanth (an Etruscan goddess associated with the dead), Phlegyas (a boatman for the dead), and Cerberus (the three headed dog guarding the fates)
At this point, I believe it best to revert to the analysis offered by readers here.
From Sovay:
  • Vanth and Charun are traditionally paired in Etruscan iconography, so her association with Orcus forms a nice parallel to Charon and Pluto; in keeping with the satellite's unclear origins, Vanth's role is not cut-and-dried (she is generally accepted as a psychopomp, possibly a benevolent counterpart to the demonic Charun) and where Orcus and Charon can be traced into other mythologies, Vanth is attested only in Etruscan; and if she accompanies dead souls from the moment of death to the underworld itself, then of course her face is turned always toward Orcus.
From JohnD
  • I suggest "Cerberus", the many-headed guard-dog of Hades. The name has been used elsewhere in the Solar System and the constellations, but not for a semi-planetary body, so I think it would still be allowed. And Cerberus was, in Virgil's words,

    "Orcus' warder, blood-besmeared,
    Growling o'er gory bones half-cleared
    Down in his gloomy den"

    so a classical connection with Orcus.
From Tim:
  • My suggested name is Prosperina. Sources differ, but as far as I can tell, Orcus and Dis Pater (the origin of ‘Dis’, which of course we see as the capital of hell in the Divine Comedy) were synonyms for the same godProsperina was the Roman name for his wife, and you will know her as Persephone, doomed to live for 4 months in hell and for 8 months in heaven because of her consumption of a single pomegranate seed. I like this because I imagine this little moon captured and dragged out on Orcus’ great elliptical orbit, destined to wander far from the plane of the planets for all eternity, a little icy queen of the void. Gosh, I need to go and have a cup of tea to cheer me up now.
From Matthew:
  • Pluto was god of the underworld in Roman mythology, and Charon ferried souls across the river Acheron in early Greek and Roman mythology. Pluto has his equivalent in Orcus, being used as an alternative name for Pluto, and having separate connections to the underworld. Charon, too, has an equivalent in Phlegyas, ferrying souls across the river Styx. Since the Kuiper belt object Orcus can be considered the anti-Pluto and therefore is named due to this relation, it seems fitting to name the first moon of Orcus in a way that fits the connection between Pluto and its first moon, Charon. This, of course, would lead to the name Phlegyas being chosen for “S/1 90482 (2005)”. In addition, Charon, in mythology, seems to be completely connected with the underworld with no indication that he ever existed apart from it. On the other hand Phlegyas does not enter the underworld until Apollo kills him for burning his temple. If Pluto and Charon formed out of a giant collision, as is believed, then Charon's entire lifetime is linked to Pluto. However, if Orcus captured its moon,which may be the case, then it would have existed before its connection with Orcus. This is even further correlation between the connections in mythology of Pluto to Charon and Orcus to Phlegyas and the objects in our solar system. So, to be true to the connection between named objects in the solar system and mythology, as well as to the connection between Pluto and Charon and Orcus and its first moon, I propose the name "Phlegyas" be given to the object “S/1 90482 (2005)”.
And so finally I have to chose, after all of these good names and great discussions. And so. And so. And so…..
Prosperina has a great connection to Orcus, but she is more strongly associated with Pluto than with Orcus. I like the idea of keeping Orcus and Pluto distinct. Cerberus suffers from the same problem.
I am strongly drawn to Matthew’s description of Phlegyas, in particular the strong link to the mystery of the formation of Orcus’s moon. That’s good. Really good. I was almost about to say OK, let’s do it, but I got stuck. Phlegyas is being punished for burning down Apollo’s temple after Apollo killed his daughter. He now wanders Hades reminding people to respect the gods. Are kidding me? If Apollo ever came down and killed my daughter he would get much worse than just his temple being burnt down. And when I went to Hades I would not talk about respecting the gods. Every time I read his story I just get mad. Maybe putting Phlegyas in space releases him from his punishment in Hades.
And finally Vanth. I will tell you this: Vanth got the most votes. It was never my intention that this become an election, but, if it had been, Vanth would be the winner. The appeal to me – and to everyone who voted for Vanth I would guess – is pretty clear. Vanth is one of the few purely Etruscan deities, and a chthonic one at that. She is a psychopomp. I mention these last two facts mainly because I had no idea what they meant until I looked them up (she is an underworld god who conveys dead souls, is what it means). She likes to hang out with Charun, a name which derives, unsurprisingly, from Charon, which makes a nice parallel. And while she’s associated with the underworld, she is a guide rather than an avenger. She awaits the dead and brings them to their new home.
Vanth doesn’t do nearly a good a job of telling the potential story of the formation of the satellite of Orcus, though. So until yesterday I was still unsure. But yesterday while reading about Vanth and reading about Phlegyas, I stumbled across a picture of very nice fresco at the tomb of Anina. Vanth is waiting for the dead, as she is often depicted. It even appears to me that she is silently crying while she waits. Admittedly, I might be misinterpreting, but still, the tear made me think of my sister, waiting for my father – guiding my father – as he took his last breaths.
In a solar system filled with Apollos (asteroid #1862, discovered in 1932) who might kill your daughter, Zeuses (asteroid #5731, discovered in 1988) who might abduct your daughter (or your son, for that matter), Tantaluses (asteroid #2102, discovered in 1975) who might feed you his son, or Erises (the largerst dwarf planet, discovered in 2005) who might start a world war, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who weeps for the dead? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a guide to light the way?
So it will be Vanth.
The citation submitted to the IAU has to be short and can only hint at the richness of everything that has gone on here. It will read:
S/1 (90482) (2005) Vanth

Discovered 13 Nov 2005 by M.E. Brown and T.-A Suer.

Vanth is a daimon in Etruscan mythology who guides the dead to the underworld. She often appears on tomb paintings and sarcophagi where she is depicted with wings and a torch, and she is frequently shown in the presence of Charun, a guard of the underworld. Name suggested by Sonya Taaffe.
Thanks to everyone for participating. Having gone through all of this, I realize that naming a moon was perhaps a bit too constraining, as the theme was already in place. Next time perhaps we will try to find a name for one of the many many other objects out there that are deserving and for which the field is wide open. As always, stay tuned.

S/1 90482 (2005) needs your help

“S/1 90482 (2005)” is really not much a name as a license plate number. As does a license plate number, it tells you pretty much everything you need to know to identify the object in question. “S” is for satellite. “/1” means it is the first discovered. The “2005” at the end tells the date of discover, and the “90482” tells whose satellite it is, but only by yet another number. This number refers to the 90482nd minor planet (in the old terminology; no one quite knows what the new terminology is, but the numbers keep coming) to be officially recorded. That object is more commonly referred to as the large Kuiper belt object Orcus. We don’t ever call the moon of Orcus by its official name of S/1 90482 (2005). Instead, around here, it is referred to mostly as “the moon of Orcus.”

It’s time to change that.

Not all of the Kuiper belt objects known and number have names, and, as I have written here earlier, I think most don’ t need them. It is OK to consign them to semi-anonymous license plate numbers if they are never really going to be thought about as more than one of the crowd. But a few special objects get studied and talked about and written about enough that need not so much just names, but also personalities. Orcus was one of those objects. Its personality was quite apparent from the beginning.

We discovered Orcus in early 2004. At the time it was the 4th largest known Kuiper belt object, though by now it has dropped to something like 8th. The most interesting thing about Orcus to me was that it appeared to be the anti-Pluto.

Pluto has what was originally thought to be a peculiar orbit. It circles the sun precisely two times for every three times that Neptune goes around the sun. Though it took astronomers a long time to realize it, this peculiarity is not a coincidence. Neptune’s gravity so dominates the region of space where Pluto is that Neptune has herded Pluto into this very special orbit. Pluto is not the only one that Neptune is pushing around. We now know of hundreds of similar objects in the Kuiper belt, including, now, Orcus.

Pluto’s orbit has a few other interesting features to it. It is so elongated that, for a brief time during its revolution about the sun, it actually comes close to the sun than does Neptune. So does Orcus. When Pluto comes close to the sun, though, it is never actually close to Neptune, partially because at that point in its orbit it is high above the disk of the planets, hitting the most extreme spot of its tilted orbit. Just like Orcus.

In fact, if you look at the orbits of Pluto and Orcus (and I encourage you to do it if you never have; check out the extremely cool orbit plotter at JPL but you'll have to zoom out to find Orcus), you will see that they are nearly identical except for 2 things. Their elongated orbits point in nearly opposite directions, and, right now, Pluto is nearly as close as it ever comes to the sun while Orcus is nearly as far away as it ever comes. In fact, because Pluto and Orcus are forced by Neptune to have precisely the same orbital period, they will always stay in opposite phases of their orbits.

Orcus is the anti-Pluto.

Several years ago, when searching for a name for what was then known only as 2004 DW, we decided to concentrate on the anti-Pluto aspect of the object’s personality, and we came up with Orcus. In the version of the Orcus myth that I like to tell, Orcus was, essentially, the early Etruscan grim reaper, collecting the dead and bringing them to the underworld where another god – Pluto – ruled. As the Etruscan mythology was incorporated into Roman mythology and blended with Greek mythology, Orcus lost his separate identity and Pluto became the master of all of the functions of the dead. Orcus became in some ways simply an alternate name for Pluto, but it also remained a slightly more evil and punishing incarnation of Pluto. In that incarnation, the Latin word Orcus was the origin of words such as ogre and orc.

In my new mythological/astronomical view, Pluto the Kuiper belt object is now named after that earlier version of Pluto, before the Romans came along and swept everything together. And Orcus is his counterpart, destined to eventually be pushed aside by the rising Pluto. Orcus seemed a very appropriate name for this new object in the Kuiper belt.

About a year later, while looking carefully at Orcus with the Hubble Space Telescope, we realized that it had a moon. In the past year we have been studying the moon of Orcus intensely and are in the final stages of writing a scientific paper on all of the interesting things about this moon. Which means it is time to stop calling it “this moon” and give it a proper name. But what?

Here’s where you come in. Send me suggestions! I’ll submit the best suggestion to the International Astronomical Union on Sunday, April 5th (about 2 weeks from now) with your name as part of the official citation (if you want it to be).

If you make a suggestion I would like to know not just what the suggestion is, but why you think its appropriate. As you can tell by now, this is the part that matters to me!

To help you out, let me tell you some of the other interesting things about the satellite. It has about a ten day orbit around Orcus, in a tight precise circle. We suspect – though can’t yet prove – that Orcus and its satellite have their same faces locked towards each other constantly, like an orbiting dumbbell. Only one other Kuiper belt object and satellite are known to do this. Who? Pluto and Charon, of course.

The origin of the satellite of Orcus is confusing. Pluto and Charon are thought to have formed in a giant collision. Haumea clearly had a shattering blow to disperse moons and other family members. But small Kuiper belt objects are thought to acquired moons by simple capture.

Orcus is right in the middle. Was the satellite from a collision or a capture? We had hoped to answer this question by observations from the Hubble Space Telescope. If the satellite had looked just like other known collisional satellite, we would have been pretty convinced. It doesn’t. Unfortunately that tells us less. We can’t rule out either. We have some ideas of new Hubble Space Telescope observations to try to tell the difference. For now, though, we’re just confused.

While the scientific paper will have more details and calculations, that will be the gist of it, and those properties are all you get to know to try to discern the personality of the moon of Orcus and to try to pull out the right name.

You can send suggestions as comments to these pages (www.mikebrowns planets.com in case you are reading this elsewhere) or simply email me ( ), but please put “Orcus” in the subject line so I don’t mistake you for a potentially business partner from Nigeria.

Good luck. S/1 90482 (2005) is counting on you.

Snow White needs a bailout

I was reading the business section of the Sunday New York Times this morning – something I do only when it is still a little chilly outside and I am not quite motivated enough to get on my bike and head up the nearest mountain – and I got engrossed in an article about how ten or so billion of dollar had been given to this or that bank and how much of it had evaporated. The main thing I thought was “Ten or so billion dollars. That’s really not that much these days.”

It’s true. A year ago the loss of that much money would be front page of every newspaper, instead of buried inside of an analysis in the business section. We were all getting used to such numbers that only hundreds of billions – or perhaps trillions – matter much anymore.

It reminds me a lot of the Kuiper belt.

Almost seven years ago we discovered our first truly large object in the Kuiper belt. It was given the license plate number of 2002 LM60, but we quickly named it Quaoar, after the creation force of the Tongva Native American tribe indigenous to the Los Angeles basin, in homage to the fact that the discovery was made by us right here in the Los Angeles basin. Quaoar made the front page of most major newspapers (except, amusingly, the Los Angeles Times).

At the time of the announcement of the discovery, the most important thing that we knew about Quaoar was that it was about half the size of Pluto. It was thus likely bigger than anything that had been found in the solar system in the past 72 years. The main part of the story that newspapers honed in on was, of course, whether or not Pluto should actually be called a planet. My very favorite quote, published in the Birmingham, Alabama newpaper, quotes me saying “Quaoar is a big icy nail in the coffin of Pluto as a planet.” Pretty good quip, I thought.

The hunt continued.

The next year we announced the discovery of Sedna, both larger than Quaoar and on a distant elongated orbit that made it more distant than anything else that we had ever found. Explaining that odd orbit has been a task I have been trying to continue to this day. I still don’t know the answer, but the mystery made the front cover of Discover magazine.

The hunt continued.

A year later we hit the jackpot, with the discoveries of Haumea, Eris, and Makemake. With Eris being larger than Pluto and eventually providing the silver bullet into the heart of Pluto’s planethood, it received a lot of attention.

The hunt continued.

After some time we started all over again, looking specifically for really super distant things like Sedna. We found a lot of things, but only one thing really far away. It wasn’t as far as Sedna, or even as far as Eris, but it was indeed the third most distant thing we had ever seen.

By now we understood the distant Kuiper belt to know that, basically, we should never see it. The only reason we ever see things is when they are brighter – or more reflective – than they are supposed to be. The only reason that things are more reflective than they are supposed to be is that they are big. The only thing that made sense is that this new thing we had found was big and reflective.

We nicknamed it Snow White.

The survey that found Snow White was specifically looking for quite distant things like Sedna; things that would help us better understand the beginning of the solar system. Snow White, we finally learned, was not like Sedna at all. It was just a normal Kuiper belt object found slightly far away. Bigger than most, but otherwise, as far as we knew, unremarkable.

What to do?

Our normal policy is to delay the announcement of particularly interesting Kuiper belt objects until we have prepared a full scientific paper on them. Snow white perhaps deserved the same treatment. It is big; big is inherently interesting. But… we had nothing interesting to say about this one. It has a typical Kuiper belt object orbit. Its reflectance spectrum shows nothing particularly unusual.

It’s just a big Kuiper belt object. Perhaps even the 5th largest one known. It probably fits between Sedna and Quaoar in size. A few years ago it would have been front page news. Now? Yawn. Nothing.
A few people have written me asking why the press has been so unkind as to ignore Snow White. But don’t blame the press. Just blame me. We didn’t even write a press release to warn the press that there was anything interesting to write about. Because, in the end, I couldn’t think of anything interesting to write about.
It’s just a big Kuiper belt object. I don’t think that it individually tells us anything particularly new about the outer solar system. Quaoar was a good signal that Pluto’s demise would come soon; Sedna was a sign of an entirely unknown distant population; Haumea and Makemake and Eris were each scientifically rich in the things they taught us about what it is like to be a tiny icy body.

Snow white? Well, it’s just a big Kuiper belt object.

Someday we’ll learn more. Perhaps it will have a moon. Perhaps our quick look at surface composition overlooked something particularly interesting. If so, we’ll be ready with a bail out: prepare a full scientific paper, maybe even tell the press this time and use the opportunity to educate the public, once again, about what is fun and interesting out there at the edge of the solar system.


Several readers pointed out that the correct Polynesian pronunciation of Make-make is not Maki-maki, as I suggested, but rather MAH-kay MAH-kay (where the capitals show accent). These readers are, of course, correct.

I find this mistake distressing as I spend so much time in Hawaii at telescopes that I think myself a proper Hawaiian-pronunciater. I can glance up at a street sign and read ten syllables in appropriate Hawaiian while my wife is still sounding through the first letters.

Hawaiian is easy. The "e" is always pronounced "ay". I get a demonstration of this every time I visit the summit of Mauna Kea to use the Keck telescope. Or when I just stay in the town of Waimea, where the Keck headquarters are. Or make sacrifices to Pele before observing (which, well, I admit to sometimes doing; she allegedly likes hard alcohol these days rather than virgins, being in shorter suppy).

But the first time I saw the name Make-make the wrong pronunciation just flowed out so easily (influenced, no doubt, by the Wiki-wiki buses at the Honolulu airport [wiki-wiki, meaning something like "quick quick." The buses are not particulatly wiki-wike, though]) that I never paused to get it right.

Sorry Make-make. And thanks to those who set me straight.

What's in a name? [part 2]

While a rose by any other name would surely smell as sweet, the Kuiper belt object/dwarf planet/Plutoid formerly known mostly as 2005 FY9 now smells a good bit sweeter to me after the International Astronomical Union has finally accepted our six month old proposal to give the object a proper name. The official citation reads:
Makemake, discovered 2005 Mar 31 by M.E. Brown, C.A. Trujillo, and
D.Rabinowitz at Palomar Observatory

Makemake is the creator of humanity and the god of fertility in the mythology of the South Pacific island of Rapa Nui. He was the chief god of the Tangata manu bird-man cult and was worshipped in the form of sea birds, which were his incarnation. His material symbol, a man with a bird's head, can be found carved in petroglyphs on the island.
Makemake, being of Polynesian descent, is pronounced Hawaiian-style (or at least what I think of as Hawaiian style), as “Maki-maki.”
Three years is a long time to have only a license plate number instead of a name, so for most of the time, we simply refered to this object as “Easterbunny” in honor of the fact that it was discovered just a few days past Easter in 2005. Three years is such a long time that I think I’m going to have a hard time calling Makemake by its real name. For three years we’ve been tracking it in the sky, observing it with telescopes on the ground and in space, writing proposals to observe it more, writing papers based on what we see, and, all the while, we have just called it – at least amongst ourselves – Easterbunny. If you came in tomorrow and told me that from now on my daughter – who also just turned three – was to suddenly be called something new, I would have a hard time with that, too.
Nonetheless, I’ve been waiting for Makemake to get a name for a long time, so I’m going to walk in to my regular Monday morning research group meeting tomorrow, pour a cup of coffee, and casually tell me students that I am working on a paper on the detection of ethylene ice on Makemake. My students, who will probably not yet have heard the word that the name is out, will look at me a little blankly, shake their heads, and proceed to ignore me, as they often do when I say things that make no sense (which, they would claim, happens weekly in these meetings). But then I’ll tell them: 2005 FY9, Easterbunny, K50331A (the very first name automatically assigned by my computer once I clicked the button indicating that I had found it; 5=2005, 03=March 31=date A=first object I found), will henceforth be know solely as Makemake, the chief god of the small Pacific island of Rapa Nui.
We take naming objects in the solar system very carefully. We’ve picked out the names for Quaoar (creation force of the Tongva tribe who live in Los Angeles), Orcus (the earlier Etruscan counterpart to Pluto, for an object that appears much like a twin of Pluto), Sedna (the Inuit goddess of the sea, for the coldest most distant Kuiper belt object at the time), and Eris (the greek goddess of discord and strife, for the object that finally led to the demotion of Pluto). Each of these names came after considerable thought and debate, and each of them fit some characteristic of the body that made us feel that it was appropriate.
Coming up with a new permanent name for Easterbunny was the hardest of all of these. Orcus and Sedna fit the character of the orbit of the body. Eris was so appropriate it is enough to make me almost start believing in astrology. Quaoar was, we felt, a nice tribute to the fact that all mythological deities are not Greek or Roman.
But what for Easterbuuny? It’s orbit is not particularly strange, but it is big. Probably about 2/3 the size of Pluto. And it is bright. It is the brightest object in the Kuiper belt other than Pluto itself. Unlike, say 2003 EL61, which has so many interesting characteristics that it was hard choosing from so many different appropriate name (more on this later), Easterbunny has no obvious hook. Its surface is covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice, which is scientifically fascinating, but really not easily relatable to terrestrial mythology. (For a while I was working on coming up with a name related to the oracles at Delphi: some people interpret the reported trance-like state of the oracles to be related to natural gas [methane] seeping out of the earth there. After some thought I decided this theme was just dumb.) Strike one.
I spent some time considering Easter and equinox related myths, as a tribute to the time of discovery. I was quite excited to learn about the pagan Eostre (or Oestre or Oster or many other names) after whom Easter is named, until I later realized that this mythology is perhaps mythological, and, more importantly, that an asteroid had already been named after this goddess hundreds of years ago. Strike two.
Finally I considered Rabbit gods, of which there are many. Native American lore is full of hares, but they usually have names such as “Hare” or, better, “Big Rabbit”. I spent a while considering “Manabozho” an Algonquin rabbit trickster god, but I must admit, perhaps superficially, that the “Bozo” part at the end didn’t appeal to me. There are many other rabbit gods, but the names just didn’t speak to me. Strike three.
I gave up for about a year. It didn’t matter anyway, as the IAU was not yet in a position to act, and I was still waiting for them to decide on a proposal for 2003 EL61 which I had made 18 months ago (again, more later).
This Christmas, though, it was suggested to me that there were rumblings within the IAU that perhaps they would just chose a name themselves and not worry about what the discoverers thought. One could say that this should not matter and I should not care; there is no science there, after all, but, I enjoy, take seriously, and spend way too much time on this giving of names. I was not interested in a committee telling me the name of something I had discovered. So I went back to work.
Suddenly, it dawned on me: the island of Rapa Nui. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? I wasn’t familiar with the mythology of the island so I had to look it up, and I found Make-make, the chief god, the creator of humanity, and the god of fertility. I am partial to fertility gods for things I discovered around that time. Eris, Makemake, and 2003 EL61 were all discovered as my wife was 3-6 months pregnant with our daughter. Makemake was the last of these discoveries. I have the distinct memory of feeling this fertile abundance pouring out of the entire universe. Makemake was part of that.
Oh, and Rapa Nui? It was first visited by Europeans on Easter Sunday 1722, precisely 283 years before the discovery of the Kuiper belt object now known as Makemake. Because of this first visit, the island is known in Spanish (it is a territory of Chile) as Isla de Pascua, but, around here, it is better known by its English name of Easter Island.

Plutoid fever

Almost two years ago, during the same contentious meeting in which Pluto was demoted from a full-fledged planet to a “dwarf planet,” a few other votes were taken, but mostly forgotten. One of the forgotten votes that was actually approved was that Pluto was to be declared the” prototype of a new class of objects”. OK. Done. What exactly that means is a bit hard to say. As far as I could tell it was an attempt to be nice to Pluto after the indignity of its demotion. Who would vote “no” to that?
The next vote that was taken was about what to call this new class of objects. The proposal, if I remember correctly, was to call them “Plutonian objects.” The proposal was voted down by a very small margin. Why, again? Hard to say. People were in funny moods.
The class of objects, then, remained unnamed, with a promise – a threat – that a committee would come up with something and there would then be no vote.
The committee has spoken! After the close vote on “Plutonian objects”, the committee deliberated for almost two years and settled on “Plutoids” and now it is settled. A “Plutoid” is a dwarf planet (meaning it must be large enough to be round) that is beyond Neptune.
But wait! There’s more! The committee did more than promised! They added one more twist to the rule. While originally all dwarf planets beyond Neptune were to be part of this new category, the committee decided to restrict the definition to the brightest of the dwarf planets. For now the only ones that count are Pluto itself, as well as three of my babies: Eris, 2005 FY9, and 2003 EL61.
I have been asked: will there be controversy? Will there be bickering? Will people fight and contend?
I suspect the answer is, in fact, that there will mostly be nothing.
The class of objects was supposed to get a name, now it has a name. The name seems pretty non-controversial, if also a bit clunky.
The one thing that almost no one will even notice is the part that I find the most odd, though, which is the restriction that the object be a particular brightness. Not a particular size: a particular brightness.
That makes for some funny situations. If you take Pluto and cover it with dirt it would no longer be a Plutoid. Or take something much smaller and cover it was snow instead of rocks and it might be a Plutoid. Or, may favorite example, if you take Eris, which is currently the intrinsically brightest object, bring it closer to the sun (where it will be in 290 years), melt some of the ice on the surface, and exposure some of the darker substrate, it might just get dark enough to no longer be a Plutoid. Now you see it; now you don’t.
[a clarification, from Daniel Fischer]
But, OK, it’s a definition. And I can at least understand the committee’s feeling that they wanted to put a concrete brightness limit instead of a harder to determine roundness limit.
What does anyone else think?
There is still a small but extremely vocal group of astronomers who remain incensed about Pluto’s demotion. They will use this as a soapbox to repeat their initial complaints about Pluto.
Other astronomers are likely to yawn. Plutoids? Sure, why not. Most astronomers have moved well beyond the Pluto-debate and the semantics associated with it. If Pluto is happy being a Plutoid then it is probably OK with the rest of us.