Last month, a team of researchers hunting extrasolar planets — those that reside around stars other than our sun — discovered a solar system with at least five and possibly seven planets. This is a remarkable discovery, bringing the number of known exoplanets to nearly 500. One of the planets sits smack in the middle of the star's "Goldilocks zone" — the area around the star where the porridge — er, water — might be just right for life.
The name of this planet is HD 10180g. Inspiring, isn't it? Try not to confuse it with HD 10180c, a world so hot it would ionize a BMW.
Some planets are named after the telescope that was used to discover them. Those named by the Kepler telescope team, which is poised to announce the discovery of hundreds of planets next year, offer a slight improvement. Because the telescope was named after legendary astronomer Johannes Kepler, planets such as Kepler-7b sound vaguely spacey. But the rest of the exoplanet telescopes were named by forcing jargon piles into uncomfortable acronyms, and here things get even worse. TrES (Trans-Atlantic Exoplanet Survey). CoRoT (Convection, Rotation and Planetary Transits). One telescope is called the WASP. Cute. Does it stand for "Why Are we Searching for Planets?"
These star catalog and telescope names give such a sorry impression of sameness, while the reality could not be further from the truth. Extrasolar planets of nearly every size have now been found. The smallest are only a few times bigger than Earth, and technology is improving so quickly that we'll see some smaller than Earth in no time. The largest are a dozen times heavier than Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. In elementary school, I remember learning that if you could walk on Jupiter, you wouldn't be able to stand up because you'd weigh 4,000 pounds. Imagine walking on HD 38801b!
But I can't do it. Because it doesn't even sound like a real place.
I'm sure the International Astronomical Union, which has been the arbiter of planetary names since 1919, has its reasons for all this. I would love to hear them, but I already know they would be completely absurd. What would medieval astronomer-turned-heretic Tycho Brahe say to a future in which nearly 100 planets are discovered every single year, and each one is stamped like an inmate and sent off to rot in an electronic database?
Even if astronomers need to maintain a technical standard for identification or location or glorification of the discovery team, isn't there room for a colloquial name to accompany the numerical mumbo-jumbo? We're awed by redwoods and loathe dandelions, even though botanists call them Sequoia sempervirens and Taraxacum officinale. Planetary geologists had the sense to rename the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, after it must have become clear that MER-A and MER-B weren't going to grab headlines. The names came at the suggestion of 9-year-old Sofi Collis, who wrote in the winning essay, "I used to live in an orphanage. It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there." Are planet hunters really going to ask her to fly to OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb?
In the 2009 film Star Trek, the Enterprise needs to clandestinely warp into our solar system to sneak up on a baddie from Romulus. It does so by parking (from light speed to zero mph!) just inside the atmosphere of Titan, a moon of Saturn shrouded in thick nitrogen haze. Even if you're not a space nut like me, Titan and Romulus sound pretty cool. The juxtaposition of the very real Titan and the fictional Romulus totally works. Same for Delta Vega and Veridian III. Why? The Star Trek creators knew — even in the 1960s — that alien planets were going to have to sound like real planets.
We love to point out when science "corrects" something that was way off-base in science fiction. I cannot imagine us ever being more in need of the reverse.
In a few years' time, a team of researchers is going to discover an Earthlike planet orbiting a sunlike star. A decade later, we might have a coarsely pixilated photograph of that planet, and scientists the world over will gather and argue about what they see in the fuzzy image.
Please, don't let it say HD 84001b.
Joseph Mascaro is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science. © 2010 Los Angeles Times