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Buying a Name for a Celestial Object June 17, 2014

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy.
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Recently there have been a number of new offers to name things, from the old star naming offers to lunar features and Mars craters, and now exoplanets. So the question is, are these legit?

The answer is probably not.

The IAU is the recognized organization for naming things not on this planet. They publish the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature. This is the resource used by NASA, ESA, astronomers, space scientists, and the makers of astronomy software. 

The USGS hosts the Gazetter, and they have a nice, succinct response the the question of whether or not you can pay a fee to name a crater on Mars. Basically, no.

Some organizations offering to sell names have some counter arguments to get you to buy it anyway. Here are a few.

No one “owns” the naming rights. 

True, sort of. No one “owns” the naming rights to roads, townships, states, or other municipalities either. If you want to start calling the road you live on “my road”, no one can stop you. You could even publish maps, put up signs (on your property), and give it to others as your mailing address. However, the Post Office is not obliged to deliver using that address. Your local municipality provides the official records, and if you don’t follow official channels, official names don’t get changed. For more on how astronomical objects get named officially, visit the IAU page on Naming Astronomical Objects.

Unlike those other companies, we publish our database.

Great. Again, you can publish your own maps with “my road” as the name of the road you live on, but until you get it officially recognized, it’s not going on official maps, etc. If  the organization selling the names can convince the space agencies, astronomers, space scientists, and software companies to use its database, it could end up on the official maps anyway. However, space agencies, astronomers, space scientists, and software companies are very unlikely to use databases from commercial, for-profit entities (If a NASA scientist took the picture that revealed the existence of a crater, why should s/he have to pay to name it??)

The IAU relaxed its stance, saying it would accept input from the public for names.

True, but they still have rules, like no living person, and no political, religious, or otherwise divisive names.  The rules for public naming campaigns also includes the following statement: “The process cannot request nor make reference to any revenues, for whatever purpose.” So if you paid money for a name, the IAU explicitly says it doesn’t count.  

However, this last item does mean that if you want to name something, and the name follows the rules, you can suggest it to the IAU for free. Find the section on the IAU page on Naming Astronomical Objects  about the kind of object you want to name and follow the directions for who to contact. 

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