Crowdsourcing Exoplanets the Old School Way

The International Astronomical Union is the world’s largest - and most bureaucratic - professional astronomy organization. It has famously opposed projects like Uwingu that let the public name Martian craters - even though Uwingu’s profits fund scientific research and education programs. The IAU has entered the 21st Century by letting the public name planets orbiting other stars.

Sort of.

According to the Exoplanet Data Explorer, there are 1,518 confirmed exoplanets and another 4,112 candidates under review. With so many planets to name, crowdsourcing makes sense. But that’s not what the IAU is doing. Instead it picked 305 planets (you can see the list on the Name Exo Worlds website) as naming candidates. But only 20-30 of those will get named.

But the public can’t vote on which exoplanets make the cut. Only astronomy clubs and non-profit organizations “with a proven interest in astronomy” can vote on which of those 305 planets the public will go to a public vote. These groups must apply to the IAU and provide proof of their non-profit status and astronomical worthiness. 

Only these IAU-approved groups will be allowed to cast the votes that will decide which exoplanets get named - and what the names should be. Only after the IAU approves the proposed names does it let  the public vote.

But the public’s vote isn’t final. The IAU will review the most popular names and decide whether the names are appropriate for an exoplanet.

And how long will this take? Check out the IAU's timeline:

  • 2014/07 - List of 305 exoplanets posted to Name Exo Worlds website
  • 2014/09 - Astronomy organizations allowed to register
  • 2014/10 - Approved organizations vote for which exoplanets get named
  • 2014/12 - Approved organizations propose names
  • 2015/03 - Public voting opens
  • 2015/07 - IAU reviews voting results and decides which names to accept
  • 2015/08 - IAU announces results

The IAU will take 13 months to name 30 exoplanets. Compare that to the original Galaxy Zoo crowdsourcing project. Within Galaxy Zoo’s first month more than 80,000 people classified over 10,000,000 images.

Universe Today spoke with Alan Stern, planetary scientist and founder of Uwingu, who scoffed at the IAU’s announcement: “It’s just more IAU elitism”. Check out UT’s report for more of Stern’s commentary

Of course Stern isn’t an objective observer: Uwingu has its own exoplanet naming program. You can propose a name - for a $10 fee. You can also vote for names - at $1 per vote. Names that receive at least 1,000 votes get added to Uwingu’s database. The profits support educational organizations like Astronomers Without Borders and the International Dark Sky Association, but even then the Uwingu database only has one exoplanet after almost two years of operation.

So neither the traditional multinational bureaucracy nor the entrepreneurial upstart seem to have a handle on how to name the thousands of exoplanets discovered every year.

What do you think? Is there a better way?