How Does One Go About Naming a Planet?

What’s in the name of trans-Neptunian objects who orbit the sun beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt? There are over 200 confirmed objects about the size of Pluto or smaller…and that totally screws with the model of the solar system I was familiar with. Growing up, I was taught that our solar system had nine planets. We had the four small terrestrial, rocky planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, then an asteroid belt, then the “gas giants” of Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. Pluto was further out, considered the “last” object. It was an easy list of planets to remember, and the gods they represented could all be found in my history books. Neat and tidy.

I remember back when I attended astronomy courses in 2000 that people were freaking out about the possibility of another brown dwarf planet besides Pluto in existence. Balderdash, silliness. The conjecture was laughable at best.  It was called Planet X, or Nubia or whatever, a theoretical planet or planetoid.Turns out there are hundreds of them. It turns out that the system used to classify planets itself became unreliable, because the facts emerging just didn’t fit the metrics. This blows my little mind.

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The other eight principle planets were named after Greco-Roman gods, so the choosing of planetoids, much like the post-colonial era of the 21st century, becomes a more potent planetary engagement that classifies phenomena off world as things related to non-Erocentric mythology.

As it turns out, there are hundreds of confirmed “trans-Neptunian objects” like Pluto, or Makemake, a dwarf planet named after the fertility god of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island. The discovery of Makemake occurred precisely 283 years after the discovery of Easter Island. The announcement of the discovery was made two days after a Spanish team of astronomers discovered another object,  Haumea way out yonder in the blackity black black. Hold up…Mike Brown’s team discovered that as well. Astronomer Mike Brown gives this account of this fertile period of astronomical discovery that he was astute and lucky enough to be involved in that gave rise to this cornucopia of celestial booty.

Makemake is the creator of humanity and the god of fertility in the mythology of the South Pacific island of Rapa Nui. He was the chief god of the Tangata manu bird-man cult and was worshipped in the form of sea birds, which were his incarnation. His material symbol, a man with a bird’s head, can be found carved in petroglyphs on the island.

Makemake, being of Polynesian descent, is pronounced Hawaiian-style (or at least what I think of as Hawaiian style), as “Maki-maki.”

Three years is a long time to have only a license plate number instead of a name, so for most of the time, we simply refered to this object as “Easterbunny” in honor of the fact that it was discovered just a few days past Easter in 2005. Three years is such a long time that I think I’m going to have a hard time calling Makemake by its real name. For three years we’ve been tracking it in the sky, observing it with telescopes on the ground and in space, writing proposals to observe it more, writing papers based on what we see, and, all the while, we have just called it – at least amongst ourselves – Easterbunny. If you came in tomorrow and told me that from now on my daughter – who also just turned three – was to suddenly be called something new, I would have a hard time with that, too.

Nonetheless, I’ve been waiting for Makemake to get a name for a long time, so I’m going to walk in to my regular Monday morning research group meeting tomorrow, pour a cup of coffee, and casually tell me students that I am working on a paper on the detection of ethylene ice on Makemake. My students, who will probably not yet have heard the word that the name is out, will look at me a little blankly, shake their heads, and proceed to ignore me, as they often do when I say things that make no sense (which, they would claim, happens weekly in these meetings). But then I’ll tell them: 2005 FY9, Easterbunny, K50331A (the very first name automatically assigned by my computer once I clicked the button indicating that I had found it; 5=2005, 03=March 31=date A=first object I found), will henceforth be know solely as Makemake, the chief god of the small Pacific island of Rapa Nui.

We take naming objects in the solar system very carefully. We’ve picked out the names for Quaoar (creation force of the Tongva tribe who live in Los Angeles), Orcus (the earlier Etruscan counterpart to Pluto, for an object that appears much like a twin of Pluto), Sedna (the Inuit goddess of the sea, for the coldest most distant Kuiper belt object at the time), and Eris (the greek goddess of discord and strife, for the object that finally led to the demotion of Pluto). Each of these names came after considerable thought and debate, and each of them fit some characteristic of the body that made us feel that it was appropriate.

Coming up with a new permanent name for Easterbunny was the hardest of all of these. Orcus and Sedna fit the character of the orbit of the body. Eris was so appropriate it is enough to make me almost start believing in astrology. Quaoar was, we felt, a nice tribute to the fact that all mythological deities are not Greek or Roman.

But what for Easterbuuny? It’s orbit is not particularly strange, but it is big. Probably about 2/3 the size of Pluto. And it is bright. It is the brightest object in the Kuiper belt other than Pluto itself. Unlike, say 2003 EL61, which has so many interesting characteristics that it was hard choosing from so many different appropriate name (more on this later), Easterbunny has no obvious hook. Its surface is covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice, which is scientifically fascinating, but really not easily relatable to terrestrial mythology. (For a while I was working on coming up with a name related to the oracles at Delphi: some people interpret the reported trance-like state of the oracles to be related to natural gas [methane] seeping out of the earth there. After some thought I decided this theme was just dumb.) Strike one.

I spent some time considering Easter and equinox related myths, as a tribute to the time of discovery. I was quite excited to learn about the pagan Eostre (or Oestre or Oster or many other names) after whom Easter is named, until I later realized that this mythology is perhaps mythological, and, more importantly, that an asteroid had already been named after this goddess hundreds of years ago. Strike two.

Finally I considered Rabbit gods, of which there are many. Native American lore is full of hares, but they usually have names such as “Hare” or, better, “Big Rabbit”. I spent a while considering “Manabozho” an Algonquin rabbit trickster god, but I must admit, perhaps superficially, that the “Bozo” part at the end didn’t appeal to me. There are many other rabbit gods, but the names just didn’t speak to me. Strike three.

I gave up for about a year. It didn’t matter anyway, as the IAU was not yet in a position to act, and I was still waiting for them to decide on a proposal for 2003 EL61 which I had made 18 months ago (again, more later).

This Christmas, though, it was suggested to me that there were rumblings within the IAU that perhaps they would just chose a name themselves and not worry about what the discoverers thought. One could say that this should not matter and I should not care; there is no science there, after all, but, I enjoy, take seriously, and spend way too much time on this giving of names. I was not interested in a committee telling me the name of something I had discovered. So I went back to work.

Suddenly, it dawned on me: the island of Rapa Nui. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? I wasn’t familiar with the mythology of the island so I had to look it up, and I found Make-make, the chief god, the creator of humanity, and the god of fertility. I am partial to fertility gods for things I discovered around that time. Eris, Makemake, and 2003 EL61 were all discovered as my wife was 3-6 months pregnant with our daughter. Makemake was the last of these discoveries. I have the distinct memory of feeling this fertile abundance pouring out of the entire universe. Makemake was part of that.

Oh, and Rapa Nui? It was first visited by Europeans on Easter Sunday 1722, precisely 283 years before the discovery of the Kuiper belt object now known as Makemake. Because of this first visit, the island is known in Spanish (it is a territory of Chile) as Isla de Pascua, but, around here, it is better known by its English name of Easter Island.

 

Since then, names of planetoids have been given to represent other cultures. I find this fascinating. The rise of a global understanding of human culture is giving rise to a globally based system of naming other planets. The names we are given as children, are they not so different?

The answer is, of course, yes. In other cultures, in aboriginal cultures, names of people can be given in accordance to the significance of certain omens present in and around the time of a person’s birth or early development. People can be named after animals, elements, colors, emotions, the dynamic interaction of objects and their relationships, for ghosts or spirits believed to be transmigrating into the soul of the newborn from other places, from other repositories of soul energy. If we discover extraterrestrial civilizations, will we need to rename ourselves according to alien codices already in place? More than likely, we will. Just as the Inca were not the Inca, but were given the name Inca, just as the “Americans” were given the name by an Italian cartographer with a bunch of fucked up maps, we will saddled with names that we will learn to use in the context of a more powerful and jingoistic culture.

I once heard a joke that goes like this. “When Chuck Norris jumps into the ocean, he doesn’t get wet. Nope, The ocean gets Chuck Norris.” And this is the essence of names, a relationship that reveals an intended point of origin. The intended point of origin is meant to preserve a pre-existing form of understanding. All of these planetoids that are existing solely with a numerical designation will one day each claim a culture, a people, an epoch for its name.

But what global system exists that all nations participate in? What is the ether in which all of these noble people are suspended? The internet! The cyberterrestial. Not even the United Nations can claim to be a valid candidate. Nations, flags, they come and go, but a people, its customs, language, its arts, those inimical repositories of spiritual power that reside in the kairos of a people and not its chronos – those pockets of human perception are the inward universes we share full of recognizable, archetypal imagery that relate directly to the natural rhythms of the world, and by extension, the cosmos. The constellation of the human story is written, to a large degree, in the oral traditions of aboriginal culture, and not in its ruins and edifice. The spirit names of our world are gathering new forms, new worlds, with which they may be identified. But, how do you disperse these names in a temporality that match our current, global cybernetic system of data? We may all rely upon math and physics to find an underlying universal language, because a Christian atom is the same as an Tutsi atom. A Hopi photon is no brighter than a Kurdish photon.

So, how do we name these hundreds of planets? I find it fascinating. the names of these planets teach me about other cultures, the deities of these cultures. The discovery of Easter island coinciding with the naming of a trans-neptunian brown dwarf planet is totally awesome.

At first, the planetoid was just given the name “Easterbunny” by Mike Brown’s team. The story of Oestre, of the tie-in with eggs and all that stuff with the Spring equinox, all of that jibes well with the Rapa Nui and their Birdman cult, and the cool Maoi statues watching the oceans.

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I find that the description of the Maoi statue resemble closely the description and picture of pre-Incan Carajia sarcophagii.

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Anyways. People always ask me what planet I’m on. It depends on which one their on. I assume they thin they’re on earth, so I respond in kind. That’s the polite thing to do. I have to fight the urge to say Planet Dees.

Anyways, the Rapa Nui used a thirteen-month lunar calendar.

Basically, all agrarian societies used a variation of this calendar to determine the lunar cycle, which foretold planting seasons, the tides, the passage of the moon. It was all tied together. If you wanted to know when things happened, you had to follow the moon. That’s one of the reasons why there are so many ancient geomantric sites that have info about equinoxes and celestial events. On a practical level, the knowledge of astronomical events could help feed a people. If you have a food supply, you can build a civilization. I don’t see anything mystical about it. But, to a nudnik, the foretelling of the shape and position of the moon and stars must have seemed like something magical. And the only difference between science and magic is the ooh-aww amplitude. if the ooh-aww is super big, it’ll make you think of magic, even if you know the science. All great explorers are looking for that magic, that sense of awe and magic in the mysteries of nature, and shit like that.

Perhaps one day someone will name a planet after me, but will get the name wrong, and then it will be confused with some other historical character, and then the planet will be annihilated in a collision from ice chunks spinning out of the Oort Cloud. In the star-dust. In the star-dust where we trace our names,  we all have an emptiness we call home. Or maybe it is the emptiness that has us.

Maybe I’ll see you on Planet Easterbunny, maybe I won’t. It’s pretty dark there.