NPR released a story about the controversy surrounding the naming of new moons and planets. The dispute began over the names of the two new moons of Pluto which until recently were only identified with a numerical code.
In Astronomy, naming rights go to the Astronomers who discover the new moon or planet. For the two Pluto moons, this was Mark Showalter and his team of researchers, who decided to put the name up to a public vote. The public was able to go to a website and vote on the name(s) they liked best and also suggest alternate names.
William Shatner, popularly known for his role as Captain Kirk on “Star Trek,” suggested “Vulcan” which quickly became the number one choice among the public voters, however, the IAU (International Astronomical Union) rejected this name. According to the IAU, the name “Vulcan” was used in the 1800s to refer to a theoretical planet that Astronomers thought they had discovered and therefore had already been mentioned in scientific literature. The IAU also claimed that “Vulcan,” the Roman god of fire and volcanoes didn’t qualify as a mythical underworld figure which is required per IAU moon rules. The IAU also claimed the possibility of copyright infringements on the original “Star Trek” series played a role in not accepting the popular name.
With the advancement in technologies, powerful telescopes have been turning up numerous new moons and planets that will need to be named. Astronomers have started giving names to these newly discovered moons and planets without any real way for the IAU to regulate, take for example the planet recently labeled “Tatooine” because it orbits two stars similar to the planet in “Star Wars.” Clearly copyright wasn’t of concern to the Astronomers that named “Tatooine” and was quickly picked up by the press and public.
As for Pluto’s moons, the names went to the second and third most popular votes “Kerberos” and “Styx.”
The IAU is currently developing rules that will include the public and be internationally comprehensive, but for now Astronomers on both sides disagree about the current regulation over the naming of new planets and moons.
What would you name a newly discovered planet or moon if you could?