Discovering new planets can be really thrilling. Naming them, for some reason, isn't.
Almost like a secret language, the planets are given names that are often a collection of letters and numbers. They may carry plenty of symbolism for astronomers but usually mean almost nothing to the general public.
Take the eight exoplanets discovered earlier this month. Two of them are seen as being potentially Earth-like. But their names -- Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b -- are truly forgettable.
That could change, though, now that International Astronomical Union (IAU) has launched a competition that will allow the public to name 305 exoplanets -- planets that are outside our solar system -- discovered before Dec. 31, 2008. The exoplanets together with their host stars and exoplanetary system are known as exoworlds.
Starting this month, astronomy clubs or organizations can go to the website www.nameexoworlds.org and vote for the 20 or 30 exoworlds they want to name until Feb. 15. After that, groups will propose a name for one exoworld along with an argument supporting their case.
Scientific names typically include a proper noun or abbreviation, sometimes with numbers followed by a lowercase letter. In the past, new planets included a reference to its host star or the scientific instrument used to discover it (as in the Kepler Space Telescope).
In this competition, the guidelines are a little different. Names must be 16 characters or less and preferably one word. The names can't be offensive nor too similar to existing names of astronomical bodies. Nominations also can't be names of pet animals (sorry, Sparky), living individuals (sorry, Tom Cruise) nor be related to commercial ventures. They also can't be linked to "places or events principally known for political, military or religious activities."
In June, the general public will be given the chance to vote on the proposed names -- the IAU is expecting a million or more votes worldwide -- and then the winners will be announced at an IAU meeting starting Aug. 3 in Hawaii.