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Poltergeist and Quijote Are Among the New Approved Names for Alien Planets

People in 45 countries submitted ideas for naming exoplanets and their host stars after legends and literature

(Bryan Allen/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Astronomers now have a plethora of ways to peer through the cosmos and pick out planets orbiting distant stars. Experts have confirmed more than 1,900 alien worlds out there and predict there are a dizzying number yet to be found, including billions of Earth-like planets.

So far, we have kept track of that abundance with official names, but the scientific designations for these worlds—such as HD 104985 b or PSR 1257+12 d—are a little dull for the non-expert trying to imagine the sunsets of twin stars on planets that just maybe could support life.

Now there's good news for planet aficionados: A bunch of exoplanets have been given official non-scientific names to inspire wonder. The monikers were announced this week as part of a contest to name known extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, and their stars.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) previously frowned upon non-official efforts to name exoplanets. The number-heavy scientific names, often drawn from the instruments used to discover the celestial bodies, were the only official names the union recognized. But people love giving things accessible names, and the organization finally came around.

A contest to name well-categorized exoplanets first gathered ideas back in the summer of 2014 from astronomy clubs and non-profit organizations. Then the contest organizers put the assembled list before the general public to vote. People cast more than 573,000 votes for their favorite options, which were subject to strict rules

Currently, 14 stars and the 31 planets orbiting them have official IAU-approved names. The strange planet PSR 1257+12 c is now appropriately known as Poltergeist, after the German legend of these "noisy ghosts." One of the first exoplanets ever found, the world orbits a zombie star called a pulsar, the spinning husk left behind after a massive star went supernova.

HD 104985 b, a gas giant that takes about 198 days to swing around its star, has been dubbed Meztli, after an Aztec deity associated with the moon. The planet's star has the moniker Tonatiuh, appropriately after the Aztec sun god.

Spanish voters helped the star known as mu Arae get the popular name Cervantes, and one of its planets is now named Quijote. Historical names like Copernicus and Galileo also made the list, as did a "villainous crocodile king" called Chalawan from Thai mythology. Peruse the full list and the names' associations on the IAU's website.

For millennia, humans have looked to the night skies and dreamt of stories for how the twinkling points of light got there. Even though the origin of the universe and its many worlds is better understood today, it seems we continue to see figures of legend stalking through the cosmos.

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