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How Do Scientists Name Space Objects?

How Do Scientists Name Space Objects?


How are Astronomical Objects Named? Ever looked at the night sky and wondered
how we arrived at naming the big, round, cheese-like object above us the “Moon”? Or how a simple bunch of seven stars arranged
at some way made us think “Hey, that looks like a bear. Let’s call that Ursa Major!” Or how we lost words at something so magnificent,
and so beyond our understanding that we just end up calling it “The Great Attractor”? Come with us in a journey of discovering how
these space objects are named! Who names the objects in space? The task of naming and cataloguing what we
see in the evening sky belongs to a special group under the International Astronomical
Union, or the IAU. Ever since their founding in 1919, it has
been their duty to set up guidelines, and form committees that determine the appropriate
naming schemes for planets, stars, constellations, satellites…practically everything that is
observable in our known universe. Thanks to these guys, we have a know what
to call any star we point in the night sky. The Solar System Family: Planets
Let’s start our adventure by knowing more about our closest neighbors, shall we? If you’re a fan of classical mythology,
it’s hard to miss how almost all the planets in our Solar System are named after popular
mythological characters. Back in the ancient times, five of the nine
planets were observable using the naked eye. Well, what else do Romans look up to? Their deities! This is the reason why the astronomers thought
of naming these planets according to the traits of their gods. For instance, the prettiest and brightest
one is compared to the goddess of beauty, Venus. One planet was bright red like blood, so they
thought it is reminiscent of the god of war, Mars. Another moves so fast that it reminded them
of the messenger god, Mercury. The slowest and farthest one must be an old
god and the father of them all, Saturn. and, the biggest one is the king, Jupiter. This theme caught on, so, when three more
planets were discovered — Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto – this became the standard theme. Of course, this is all before Pluto was demoted
to a dwarf planet, which is a story covered in another video, by the way. The same system was applied to naming minor
planets and asteroids, with preference to female characters from the Greco-Roman classics,
like for instance, Vesta, Pallas, Juno, and Eros. Everyone in the family gets the same theme. The Solar System Family: The Moons
Now, we move on to the orbiters of the planets: natural satellites, or moons. Technically, there are a few ways to name
moons. There is a boring way, and then there was
the fun way. The boring way was naming the moon with the
planet it revolves around, plus a Roman numeral equivalent to its order of closeness to the
planet. For example, if I had found a moon on Saturn,
and it’s the 7th closest to it, its technical name would be “Saturn VII”
Since the planets were already named before the Greco-Roman gods, astronomers then decided
to extend this theme to the moons. Particularly speaking, astronomers choose
the names of mythological characters that are related to the planet which they revolve
around. For instance, the Martian moons are named
after the sons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. The moons of Jupiter were named after either
his lovers or children, like for example, the Gallilean moons, Io, Ganymede, Callisto,
and Europa. Saturn’s moons were named after Titans and
Giants, since Saturn himself was a Titan. Neptune’s moons were characters that were
somehow involved with the sea, and Pluto’s were characters who once walked the underworld,
and Uranus’ were taken from the Shakespearean and Alexander Pope’s universe. Even a lot of planetary features, like craters
and mountains, have names derived from mythology. I think we can say that if we were to study
all the names of the objects of the solar system, we would also learn a lot about Greek
and Roman mythology, right? Talk about a real renaissance man. The Solar System Family: Comets
You know how big families always have that one cousin who rarely shows up and is often
on the move? Well, if the Solar System is a family, then
that cousin is the comets. In the early 20th century, these objects were
named after the person who discovers them. A few examples of these are Halley’s Comet,
discovered by Edmond Halley, and Encke’s Comet, discovered by Johann Franz Encke. This also became the naming convention for
the preceding discovered comets, allowing up to three people names separated by a dash,
like IRAS–Araki–Alcock…that is until people who has dash on their names made it
problematic. This was when our original heroes, the IAU,
stepped in to standardize the naming system. In 1994, they started naming comets according
to the year it was discovered, followed by an alphabet equivalent of the order at which
half of the month it was discovered in the year. For example, if I had discovered a comet in
2003, and it was the 17th discovery that year, that comet’s name will be “Comet 2003q”,
which later changes to “Year + order of perihelion passage in Roman numeral” (if
our previous example is the second to pass perihelion, then it becomes 2003 II), once
its orbit is established. However, as technology caught up, more comets
were discovered, and astronomers ran out of alphabet and subscripts to add to each letter
and the system became a mess. What do we do when systems become too messy? We set up new ones. Ever since 2003, the comets are now named
using the following combination: A prefix indicating the nature of the comet’s
motion, for instance, P, for periodical, and C, for a non-periodic comet, followed by a
slash, followed by an alphabetical equivalent for either first or second half of the month
designated sequentially, then, the order at which it was discovered that half month. To put it in perspective, say I have discovered
a non-periodic comet in the first half February of 2020, and this is the 2nd comet found at
this time. Using our system, that comet will be named
“C/2020 C2”. C for non-periodic, 2020 for the year, C,
since the first half of February is the third half-month for the year, and 2 since it is
the second to be discovered. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Constellations: The Ancient Astronomers’
“Where’s Waldo?” If there’s anything that our old astronomy
folks had the most fun of, I’m willing to bet it’s naming the constellations. It would be crazy to not admit how they went
full creative mode with that one, I mean, how do you even see a bear just from seven
stars, right? Ancient astronomers had to find a way to somehow
remember the huge number of stars that they see in the night sky. And, the best way they thought, is to find
patterns among the order of stars. They found all sorts of stuff: shapes of animals,
like bears, eagles, birds, fishes; of mythological creatures like unicorns, Pegasus, centaurs;
of familiar items, like a ship’s keel, easel, a carpenter’s level; and, surprise, surprise,
of mythological characters, like Hercules, Cassiopeia, and Andromeda. Their efforts of labelling star groups in
the effectively produced a concise map of the night sky, which eventually lead to the
formation of the celestial sphere, or the theoretical observation sphere, at which the
observer is at the center of. To infinity and beyond: Stars
Now that we’re moving away from the solar system and towards what’s beyond, it gets
a bit more complicated than just simple mythological characters. Remember how in the previous section, we discussed
how the names of the constellations became the reference in naming the stars and other
objects? Well, that’s how everything seen in the
celestial map is now named. Let’s start with the stars. The earliest astronomers to name stars visible
to the naked eye was Hipparchus, successfully tagging around 850 stars. Think that’s a lot of stars? Well, not according to Johann Bayer, beating
that record with about twice what the previous guy did! All with the naked eye. Man, they are either extremely bored or extremely
passionate about naming stars. Of course, star observation and naming weren’t
a feat exclusive to these two pioneers. There were stars that already had well-known
Arabic, and some Latin, names. This system would work fine, but since transliteration
is such a bothersome friend of passing down historical knowledge, the names could sometimes
rouse debates on how they are properly labelled. For example, there isn’t a standard way
to call the star Almach, since it has an Arabic origin. It could be spelled Almaach, or Almak, or
Alamak, or Alberta. I was just kidding about the last one, but
you get the point. There are also instances where stars have
more than one name, like Gemma or Alpheca. Of course, there was also the problem of how
unprecise the old catalogs got, resulting in some stars having the same name in a different
constellation. It’s like having a Mark in work and another
Mark from soccer class. This is why in 2016, the IAU launched WGSN,
or Working Group on Star Names, with the specific goal of finding a systematic way to catalogue
and standardize how every star that can be found in the celestial sphere would be named. In this new system that they developed, stars
are catalogued either according to the constellation group they belong to, as unique individual
items, or a variation of both. The top brightest stars, like Sirius, Arcturus,
Vega, retained their old names, since everyone is already familiar with them, along with
a handful of also popular ones. The two most preferred designation techniques
were the Bayer and Flamesteed designations. In the Bayer designation, stars are named
by a Greek alphabet indicating the order they are catalogued, following the constellation
name. Let’s say we have a hypothetical constellation,
Barney. Barney has 5 stars. Using the Bayer designation, Barney’s stars
will be named α Barney, ß Barney, Γ Barney, δ Barney, and ε Barney. That’s a lot of Barneys. Now, this system is fine. That is until you include the gigantic constellation,
Centaurus. How does it become a problem, you ask? Well, the Greek alphabet only has 24 letters. Centaurus has 281 stars! Huge mismatch. For conditions like these, it is preferable
to utilize the Flamesteed designation. In this method, numbers are used instead of
letters, so we can go up to a million and we’ll still have a unique indicator for
each star. On the other side of the coin, we have the
designation methods that aim to catalogue stars by a threshold magnitude, like the previously
mentioned Bright Star Catalogue, the Henry Draper Catalogue, and the Guide Star Catalogue
II, to name a few. Finally, there is the variable star designation
which is some kind of special variety of the Bayer designation. This method is used for stars which brightness
varies from time to time, as observed from earth. The Exoplanets
We all know that our sun is a star, and that it has its own set of orbiting objects. The next question is, do other stars have
their own planets, asteroid systems, comets, and the like? If you’re familiar with the gravitational
laws, particularly how it is described in general relativity, the sheer massiveness
of stars is conducive to the availability of objects revolving around it, like planets. Since these planets are beyond our Solar System,
they are more popularly labelled as exoplanets. So, okay, cool! There are exoplanets. But the question we’re interested in answering
is: how do astronomers label them? In essence, there aren’t really any set
of rules that are standardized for naming exoplanets. The current system the IAU rolled out is an
extension of the constellation-based star naming system. To put it simply, to name an exoplanet, we
simply use the star it revolves around as reference. Let’s take for example the star, Alpha Centauri. If a planet was found that is directly affected
by the star’s gravity, and it is the first found within that star system, then, that
planet’s designation becomes “Alpha Centauri a”. The preceding planets, then, becomes “Alpha
Centauri b”, “Alpha Centauri c”, and so on and so forth. Galaxies and Everything Else
Of course, the universe isn’t purely composed of just planets, stars and moons. Astronomers also happen to find other objects
that don’t belong to these categories and must be named uniquely. For instance, there are magnetic rotating
neutron stars emitting radio waves called Pulsars. They are named using a prefix of “PSR”,
which stands for ‘Pulsating Source of Radio’, followed by a numerical string indicating
its right ascension and degrees of declination. The birth, or Novae, and death of stars, or
Supernovae, can also be designated using conventional names! For Novae’s, the naming scheme is “Nova”,
the constellation where the Novae is found, plus the year it was discovered. For instance, a Nova observed in Capricorn
in 2010 will have the name “Nova Capricorn 2010”. On the other hand, for the Supernovae, we
use a prefix of “SN”, followed by the year of discovery, plus an uppercase alphabetical
designation on the order it was discovered that year. The third supernova observed in 2010 should
have the name “SN2010C”. Now, these last two items we will tackle is
the black sheeps of the group: they absolutely have no standardized naming convention! If we ride a space ship and keep moving, eventually
we will see that all the stars are clustered together in groups which we call galaxies. Similar to black holes, they also don’t
have naming rules. However, there some astronomers successfully
named a few, according to some arbitrary characteristics. For instance, we have the Andromeda galaxy,
derived from its position in the constellation of Andromeda. The sombrero shaped, Sombrero Galaxy, and
it’s loopy cousin, the Whirlpool galaxy. And of course, our very own, Milky Way galaxy,
because when it was first observed, it looked like a road of milk. No kidding. Black holes, the superstar of every galaxy,
have no standard naming schemes. Some are named according to which catalogue
they are first mapped, like NGC 4151, some according to the constellation, for instance,
Cygnus X-1, and some according to the instrument used upon discovery, like black hole RX J1131−1231
derived from Chandra X-ray Observatory. From completely systematized, to completely
chaotic and all-over-the-place, we can certainly say that learning about how astronomical objects
were named was an awesome adventure! Would you have come up with better naming
conventions, if you were given the task by the IAU? Let us know in the comments down below! Leave a like if you want more content like
this, and don’t forget to subscribe and hit that bell button, so that you don’t
miss all the cool videos we make! Stay insanely curious.


Reader Comments

  1. I love Insane curiosity so much !!! But Brother your English Accent should be more clear !!! I sometimes don't understand your accent !!! Please make more clear, Bro !!!

  2. The content is nice and interesting, but holy… English speakers pronunciation is so damn awful and sometimes just off… I'll just pretend I didn't watch this one…

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