Viking image of Mars (composite)

Thierry Montmerle, the General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union is throwing a tantrum over Uwingu’s program to crowd-source informal names for craters on Mars.

Montmerle issued a press release saying that such naming is “against the spirit of free and equal access to space.”

Uwingu, founded by former NASA Associate Administrator Dr. Alan Stern, is a non-profit group that provides grants to scientists and educators around the world to conduct valuable space exploration, research, and education projects.

That sounds like the sort of thing the International Astronomical Union should support, but the IAU believes it is the only organization that has the right to name geological features on other planets.

Obviously, “free and equal access” means something different to Montmerle than it does to most people. What the IAU is asking for it not free and equal access, but a monopoly.

Uwingu has not claimed that the names it is selling are official or that they will be used by the scientific community. It’s primarily a fun exercise — which happens to help planetary science.

The International Astronomical Union is based in France, a country which has never landed a space probe on Mars. It is a private organization, with no legal authority. Its claim to a monopoly on naming rights seems to be based primarily on the fact that its members have a large number of PhDs.

But astronomy and space science are not funded exclusively (or primarily) by PhDs. There is no reason why members of the public, who have pay for such research, should not have opportunities to participate through programs such as Uwingu.

Once again: Uwingu is not challenging the IAU’s right to bestow official scientific names. And in the end, IAU is going to look awfully silly. When Mars is settled by human beings, the settlers will bestow their own names on local features (as humans always do). It is those names, not the formal scientific names bestowed by IAU or the informal names sold by Uwingu, that will go down in history books. Many of those will be names that IAU would not approve. There will be names like “Broken Axle Crater” (just as the American West is filled with place names like “Dead Mule Gulch.”). No one will much care what astronomers back on Earth think about them.

Written by Astro1 on March 11th, 2014 , Planetary science

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    The IAU is just jealous that they didn’t think of this GREAT IDEA first!

    March 11, 2014 at 4:15 pm
    P Edward Murray commented

    While I understand what UWINGO is doing, trying to raise money for a worthy cause, in the end, those names will never be listed anywhere or on any map or globe of Mars.
    BUT names registered by The IAU will be listed on maps or globes of Mars, The other Planets, their satellites and Asteroids.

    Of course, their is another naming scheme which is probably just as valid:

    Make a scientific contribution so regarded that folks may name something after you ie “Barnard’s Star”.


    P Edward Murray
    Past President,
    Bucks-Mont. Astronomical Association Inc.

    Member, Slooh Observatory

    Discover of The Basketball Player/Juggler in the moon.

    March 11, 2014 at 4:27 pm
      Astro1 commented

      Why do you assume that Uwingu couldn’t publish its own maps? There’s no law against it.

      March 11, 2014 at 4:36 pm
        P Edward Murray commented

        Yes they could:) But who would buy them or pay any attention to those maps? In the end you just end up with the problem folks encounter when they “Name A Star” or purchase land on The Moon!

        March 11, 2014 at 4:50 pm
          Astro1 commented

          Mars One has already said they plan to use Uwingu maps. It’s easy to imagine SpaceX doing the same.

          March 11, 2014 at 5:27 pm
            P Edward Murray commented

            Mars One?

            I wouldn’t hold my breath for that one:)

            March 14, 2014 at 5:44 pm
      P Edward Murray commented

      And there is of course a third type…actually discovering something as I did on the moon:)

      March 11, 2014 at 4:51 pm
    Laurel Kornfeld commented

    What makes something “official?” The IAU claim they are the only official arbiters of nomenclature in the solar system, but just what gives them that right? For seven-and-a-half years, they have been trying to impose their own, highly flawed planet definition on the world as the only legitimate definition. This is in spite of the fact that only four percent of the IAU voted on that definition, most are not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers, and their decision was opposed by hundreds of professional astronomers in a formal petition led by–you guessed it–Dr. Stern! When the IAU leadership was asked to re-open the discussion on planet definition at its 2009 General Assembly, the leadership refused, and the astronomers who made the request boycotted that conference.

    Science does not work by decree imposed from on high. If the IAU really wants to follow its mission of “safeguarding the science of astronomy,” its leaders will commit to a far more open process that welcomes partner organizations and input from both the public, amateur astronomers, and professionals who may not be IAU members.

    March 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm