What’s in a name? Apparently, quite a bit. The right to name space landmarks has reignited a longstanding feud between two organizations, and this time they’re butting heads over Martian craters. In the blue corner, founded in 1919 and touting 1,500 members in 94 countries, we have the International Astronomical Union (IAU)---a collective of astronomers involved in professional research and education. In the red corner, a small start-up focused on increasing public participation in space exploration and research, we have Uwingu.
Not long ago, Uwingu started a fundraising campaign that allows anyone to name one of Mars’ 500,000
mapped craters for a fee starting at $5. Mars is now dotted with craters bearing a cornucopia of names like DJ’s Nipple, Sweaty and Baconmancakes. One sports fan even transplanted earthly rivalries onto the Red Planet, naming a crater simply Cubs Suck. The proceeds from the naming campaign will fund Uwingu grants for astronomy education and research. However not everyone is pleased with this arrangement. In a release this week the IAU discredited the more than 7,000 craters
named in the first 10 days of the campaign. The IAU says they are the only organization with the authority to name intergalactic craters, planets and everything else in between. Uwingu’s initiative to monetize the naming process goes “against the spirit of free and equal access to space,” according to the news release. Hence, Baconmancakes will never appear on an official map of Mars. The mission of the IAU is to establish internationally recognized and official names for astronomical bodies so scientists can all speak the same language. IAU’s present rules preclude the public from participating in the naming process, unless the space agency or discoverers invite them to. However, the IAU's decisions are not enforceable by any national or international law, according to their own naming rules
Naming Mars craters isn’t the first bout between these two organizations. Uwingu stirred the pot in in 2012
after they charged a fee for people to nominate names for Alpha Centauri Bb
, Earth’s closest exoplanet. Albertus Alauda was the the top vote-getter. When Uwingu rolled out its exoplanet campaign, the IAU flexed its muscle. They issued a public statement saying the Uwingu “scheme” had no bearing on the official naming process, causing Uwingu nominations and votes to take a major slide at the time. Uwingu’s CEO Alan Stern told Universe Today
in April 2013:
“I think it is diminishing that the IAU is holding onto their claim that they own the Universe. This is like some 15th century European academic club claiming that since Columbus discovered America, they own all the naming rights. That’s BS.”
Uwingu isn't pretending to supplant official Mars maps, or deceive people into thinking the names are official, Stern says. The IAU maintains, per its statement, that it “encourages the public to become involved in the naming process of space objects and their features by following the officially recognized (and free) methods.” The organization has a complete list of rules for naming astronomical objects
, and in 2013 they received 2,000 name suggestions from the public after hinting they might design a process for soliciting input. They quickly clarified in a follow-up statement
, though, that they have no plans to actually use these names---rather, they need to wait to design a process to involve the public. In other words, thanks but no thanks.
Photo credit: NASA