Issues Magazine

Astronomers Agree on Standards for Naming Space Objects


Astronomers from the International Astronomical Union (IAU) have agreed on common standards for naming space objects, features or phenomena so that they can be easily located, described and discussed.

In recent times there has been a proliferation of initiatives capitalising on the public’s interest in space and astronomy by putting a price tag on naming space objects and their features, such as Mars craters. However, the IAU says that these initiatives go against the spirit of free and equal access to space, as well as internationally recognised standards. As a result, none of the names purchased can ever be used on official maps and globes.

Instead, the IAU wants the public to become involved in the naming process of space objects and their features by following the officially recognised (and free) methods.

For instance, features on a given planet or satellite receive names chosen from a particular theme. Only those features that are deemed to be of significance to science are given a name by the community, thus leaving other features to be named by future generations.

Although the present rules are that the general public cannot request that a particular feature is named, they can suggest that specific names be considered for formal adoption, or they can do so following a public invitation from a space agency or from the discoverers.

This was the case for NASA’s 1989 Magellan Venus mapping mission, when the public was invited to offer the names of women who had made outstanding or fundamental contributions to their fields as the potential names of Venusian craters.

A recent example was the naming of the two most recently discovered satellites of Pluto in 2013, which was the result of an IAU-approved public vote. The IAU also played a key role in getting the USSR and the USA to agree on naming rules for lunar features during the space race of the 1960s.