The US of Tatooine
“Tatooine” is, you will surely agree, a pretty stupid name for a planet, but there are so many Star Wars fans that some unfortunate world is bound to end up being called exactly that. On the whole, though, giving more user-friendly names to newly found planets orbiting other stars is a good idea.
There is, for example, a potentially habitable “exoplanet” only sixteen light years from here that is currently known only as Gliese 832c. Gliese 832 was named in a list of 3,803 “nearby” stars (up to 72 light years away) first published by Wilhelm Gliese in 1957, and updated several times since. The “c” was added when Gliese 832 was discovered to have planets two months ago. All very sensible and orderly, but not very romantic. So the International Astronomical Union called in the consultants, and the result was a competition!! The NameExoWorlds contest, announced last year, will give the global public an opportunity to give more exciting names to about 300 planets circling other stars. Starting next month, a site will open on which astronomy clubs and other non-profit organisations can register with the IAU, and in October they will be asked to pick 25 or 30 of these planets for the first round of naming.
Starting in December, these clubs and organisations can propose names for the planets and their host stars and in March the general public can rank the proposals in an online vote.
The winning names will be announced at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu a year from now. The IAU’s naming rules are the most interesting part of the exercise. Names may not be longer than sixteen characters, they should only be one word, and they must be pronounceable in some known language. They shouldn’t be rude, they must not be of a commercial nature, and the names of pets are not acceptable.
Most importantly, they cannot be the names of living individuals, nor the names of individuals, places or events principally known for political, military or religious activities.
Imagine that the IAU’s rule had been in force in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when European sailors and settlers were sprinkling names on all the “new lands” in the Americas and Australasia. No New England, no Melbourne, and certainly no El Salvador. No Sao Paulo, no Los Angeles, and no Sydney.
Waterloo in Canada will have to go, as will Washington (both the city and the state) in the United States, and they’ll have to do something about Bolivia too. But the biggest problem will be what to do about the Americas: two entire continents called after an individual who was still alive when they were named.
Amerigo Vespucci, originally from Florence, moved to Spain in 1492 and subsequently became involved in organising various voyages of exploration to the “New World” for the kings of both Spain and Portugal. In 1507 he was credited by the German geographer Martin Waldseemuller with discovering that these lands were not part of Asia, as Columbus had originally believed, but a huge separate land-mass between Europe and Asia.
On his world map of that same year, therefore, Waldseemuller named that land-mass “America”, after the Latin version (Americus) of Vespucci’s first name. But Amerigo Vespucci was still alive – he didn’t die until 1512. The name caught on, as it happened, but Waldseemuller broke the IAU rules.
It’s never too late to fix a mistake, but what shall we call the place instead? I know. How about the continents of North Tatooine and South Tatooine? And, of course, the United States of Tatooine.