The Public Got to Name 45 New Exoplanets and Stars

An artist’s concept of the exoplanet Kepler-452b, a “super-Earth." Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

The International Astronomical Union is the world’s utmost authority in naming celestial bodies, but in August, the organization turned the reins over to the public, allowing people to vote to name a handful of planets for the first time. The IAU announced the results of its NameExoWorlds contest today, giving new monikers to 14 stars and 31 exoplanets in their orbits. 

The newly adopted names take the form of different mythological figures from a wide variety of cultures from across history, as well as famous scientists, fictional characters, ancient cities and words selected from bygone languages,” the IAU noted in its press release.

New exoplanet and star names include Hypatia (the female Greek scientist); Meztli (an Atzec moon deity); Majriti (the Arab astronomer); Cervantes (the Spanish writer); Quijote (his most famous character); and Poltergeist ("run to the light!"). You can see them all here

The contest, which ran from August until the end of October, received more than half a million votes sent in from 182 countries and territories around the world. The people who proposed the winning names will get a plaque for their insight. 

The IAU’s naming committee validated all the choices selected by voters after the contest ended. They nixed one proposed exoplanet name, tau Boötis, because it didn’t conform to the organization’s rules for naming. It’s not the first time the public has been disappointed by the intricacies of international planet-naming bureaucracy. In 2013, voters were disappointed to learn that one of Pluto’s moons couldn’t be named Vulcan—a choice that garnered more than 174,000 votes in a public poll—because a hypothetical planet already had that name. Instead, the dwarf planet’s two smallest moons were named Kerberos and Styx, voted second and third. 

ESO, A. Müller et al.
Here's the First Confirmed Image of a Planet Being Born
ESO, A. Müller et al.
ESO, A. Müller et al.

One of the newest landmarks in the observable universe has finally been captured, according to the European Southern Observatory. The image, snapped at its Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, marks the first time a newborn planet has been seen as it forms. 

The image was documented by SPHERE, an instrument at the VLT that's built to identify exoplanets. It shows a planet, dubbed PDS 70b, taking shape in the disc of gas and star dust surrounding the young dwarf star PDS 70. In the past, astronomers have caught glimpses of what may have been new planets forming, but until now it had been impossible to tell whether such images just showed shapes in the dust or the beginnings of true planet formation. The results of the research will be shared in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics [PDF].

This latest cornograph (an image that blocks the light of a star to make its surroundings visible) depicts the new planet clearly as a bright blob beside the black star. The two bodies may look close in the photo, but PDS 70b is roughly 1.8 billion miles from PDS 70, or the distance of Uranus to the Sun. SPHERE also recorded the planet's brightness at different wavelengths. Based on information gathered from the instrument, a team of scientists led by Miriam Keppler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy says that PDS 70b is a gas giant a few times the mass of Jupiter with a surface temperature around 1830°F and a cloudy atmosphere.

Astronomers known that planets form from solar clouds which stars leave behind when they come into a being, but until now, the details surrounding the phenomena have been mysterious. “Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly understood early stages of planetary evolution,” astronomer André Müller said in a press release. “We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.”

This is just the latest history-making image captured by the ESO's Very Large Telescope. In the last 20 years, it has documented nebulae, light from gravitational waves, and interacting galaxies.

Saturn and a Strawberry Moon Will Brighten Night Skies This Week

Summer has officially arrived. That means the weather is finally warm enough in parts of the country to lay down a blanket in your backyard and spend the night staring at the sky. This week is especially exciting for stargazers. According to Mashable, Saturn will be visible in the sky beside a "strawberry moon."

One of the first major celestial events of the season takes place Wednesday, June 27. The Earth will fall directly between Saturn and the Sun on Wednesday and a brightly shining Saturn will be visible in the eastern sky after the Sun goes down. The best time to spot the ringed planet is around midnight, and it will appear in the sky for the next several months.

On Wednesday, when Saturn is at its brightest, the sky will present another treat. A full strawberry moon will rise not far from Saturn's spot around 12:53 a.m. EDT that night and accompany the planet as it moves across the sky. The name isn't a reference to the Moon's hue, but to the time of year when it appears: A strawberry moon is the first full moon of summer, and it was once used by farmers to mark the beginning of strawberry picking season.

These two events are just the start of a promising time of year for astronomy fans. Sync your digital planner to this space calendar so you don't miss out on any other big dates, like the partial solar eclipse on August 11.

[h/t Mashable]


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