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.