Space Time

The Largest Unnamed Object in the Solar System Is Getting a Formal Title

How astronomers are tapping the public to name 2007 OR10

The dwarf planet 2007 OR10. Credit: NASA

TThere are many distant objects that orbit beyond Neptune — the most famous of which, of course, is Pluto. But far beyond Neptune are numerous dwarf planets that range from Pluto-sized — 4,500 miles across — to even smaller and stranger. Some are shaped like footballs and others like perfect circles with orbits that take them further out than any astronomer ever expected to find a planetary object.

In 2007, three astronomers discovered one of the largest dwarf planets ever, coming in behind Pluto in mass and size. Its formal designation became 2007 OR10, marked for the year it was found. It remains the largest unnamed body in the solar system and for over a decade now, the planetary science community has been waiting for this dwarf planet to earn a real name. And now the time has come.

A few weeks ago the lead discoverer — planetary scientist and astronomer Meg Schwamb — announced that she was officially putting the vote in the hands of the public. She and her co-discoverers, astronomer Mike Brown and astronomer David Rabinowitz, selected three mythological names for the public to choose from and posted a website where the votes could take place.

Here are the options from the website:

Gonggong: “A Chinese water god with red hair and a serpent-like tail. He is known for creating chaos, causing flooding, and tilting the Earth.”

Holle: “A European winter goddess of fertility, rebirth, and women. Holle makes snow by shaking out her bed. She is a patroness of household crafts, especially spinning. She is linked to the Yuletide season, also associated with mistletoe and holly.”

Vili: “A Nordic deity. Vili, together with his brothers Odin and Ve, defeated frost giant Ymir and used Ymir’s body to create the universe.”

Gonggong was David Rabinowitz’s suggestion, Vili was long on the list, while Halle came later. “I’m happy with any of them,” says Schwamb. “I think they’re all great. Plus, I had to pick a name that would likely pass the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) parameters because you don’t want Boaty McBoatface,” he added, referring to the British government research vessel that was named by internet poll.

Selecting serious names to choose from wasn’t easy. “All these dwarf planets and objects like Pluto have names that sort of fit the surface properties and so it’s hard when you don’t know anything about it,” says Schwamb. “We wanted to give it a fitting name. It’s like naming the baby after seeing the baby… Now, we can tell a story.”

“Naming is a process that makes places out of worlds.”

Astronomers are not likely to discover new dwarf planets as large as 2007 OR10 because the sky surveys all would have likely found them by now, so this naming campaign could be one of the last. And it’s not every day that astronomers get the chance to name a planetary body. “It has always taken the world’s greatest telescopes or spacecraft to find new worlds, so naming them has always been the privilege of people who have access to those things,” says Emily Lakdawalla, planetary scientist and senior editor at The Planetary Society, a major space exploration nonprofit. “That’s why I’m so happy that Meg invited the public to participate in naming 2007 OR10.”

Not only is 2007 OR10 on the larger side, but it’s also one of the slowest rotating bodies in the Kuiper Belt, a collection of small planetary bodies orbiting beyond Neptune. It even has its own moon, which will likely get a name eventually, one that will relate to whatever is chosen for 2007 OR10.

The voting officially closed this week, but not before more than 280,000 ballots were tallied. Once they figure out the winner, Schwamb and her colleagues will formally submit a letter to the IAU, which will either begin the process of approval or move on to the runner-up. Assuming all goes well, 2007 OR10 could have its name in as soon as a few weeks.

It’s not every day a dwarf planet is discovered, and it’s not every day a formal name is selected either. “Naming is a process that makes places out of worlds,” says Lakdawalla. “I’m thrilled to be living in a time when humans are first discovering and exploring 2007 OR10 and all the others around Kuiper Belt — not just Pluto but also Eris, Makemake, Haumea, Sedna, Orcus, Quaoar, and many more.” Humans are putting their stamp on the cosmos, one name at a time.

Freelance writer in the Bay Area

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