Names for Exoplanets

As I’d mentioned earlier, many exoplanets currently have names like Kepler-7b, HD 189733b, GJ 1214b, Gliese 581g, Kapteyn b, Gliese 667 Cc, … Why not names like Wu Tang Clan or Ghostface or Alderaan or Gallifrey? In 2014, the International Astronomical Union decided to change that by having a contest to name some exoplanets.

The IAU first came up with a list of 305 well-studied exoplanets that had been discovered before the end of 2008, exoplanets that are members of 250 exoplanetary systems. Several astronomy clubs and other such organizations then applied to the IAU to become registered voters in this contest. The accepted ones then selected 20 exoplanetary systems to vote on, and they then submitted sets of names for them. In 2015, the IAU had a public vote on which name set, and then announced the winners. The Approved Names, The Process, The ExoWorlds, The Proposals, and The Statistics.

I don’t know how well this contest turned out, or whether the IAU is willing to have another one. But if the IAU ever does, then there are now a lot more planets to choose from, like the Kepler ones and TRAPPIST-1.

Some names and details below the fold.

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Stars and exoplanets: where do their names come from?

JPL | Videos | Q and Alien: What’s in an Exoplanet Name?, also at ▶ Q&Alien: What’s in an Exoplanet Name? – YouTube

Why do exoplanets have weird-looking names like these? Names like:

Kepler-7b, HD 189733b, GJ 1214b, Gliese 581g, Kapteyn b, Gliese 667 Cc, …

Why not names like Wu Tang Clan or Ghostface or Alderaan or Gallifrey? For starters, astronomers have discovered a *lot* of exoplanets, and giving them individual names would be a lot of trouble. Also, their names have a certain descriptive value:
(star) + (planet letter)

The star is typically (catalog) + (number):
Kepler-7 is the 7th star that the Kepler team discovered to have planets.
HD 189733 is the 189733’th star in the Henry Draper star catalog

The first planet named is small-letter b, because “a” is reserved for its star. They are named in order of discovery, and if several are discovered at the same time, they are then named in order of distance. Stars, however, have capital letters: A, B, C, … in order of brightness or discovery.
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Planets of Other Suns

Exoplanets, planets of other stars. How did we discover them?

It took a long time to do so, with plenty of false alarms along the way. I am old enough to remember when Peter van de Kamp’s 1960’s and 1970’s claimed discovery of planets around Barnard’s Star was taken very seriously. But it was later discovered that maintaining his telescope caused the largest observed effects, and that discovery is now discredited. In 1991, Andrew Lyne, M. Bailes, and S.L. Shemar claimed that they had discovered a planet orbiting pulsar PSR 1829-10, a planet with orbit period half a year. But they then discovered that they had made a small error in their accounting for the Earth’s position, and they retracted their discovery.

The first confirmed discovery of an exoplanet was in 1992, when Alexander Wolszczan and Dale Frail discovered two planets orbiting pulsar PSR 1257+12. This was followed by a third one in 1994. The first one for a “normal” sort of star was in 1995, when Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz discovered a planet around the Sunlike star 51 Pegasi.

These discoveries were followed by numerous other ones, and some 3500 planets are now considered confirmed to exist. In particular, the Kepler space telescope’s observations have yielded a large number of discoveries, about 2/3 of all known exoplanets.

More below the fold.

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The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna

That is the title of one of Isaac Asimov’s science essays, collected in his book Is Anyone There?

“The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna” was published in 1966, but its overall conclusions are anything but out-of-date. IA grew up with early 20th cy. science fiction, and much of it featured lots of adventures on other Solar-System planets. I recall that someone once claimed that the first SF writer to break out of the Solar System was likely E.E. “Doc” Smith, with his Skylark of Space (1928).

A curious consequence of telescopic observations and acceptance of heliocentrism was the belief that all the Solar System’s planets were inhabited by sentient entities and whole biotas of organisms. In the eighteenth century, that was a very common belief, on the ground that God would not want to waste a world. But in the nineteenth century, some scientists started getting skeptical about that, and by the mid twentieth century, their skepticism had become mainstream. Most of the Solar System seemed very hostile to all but the hardiest microbes, and often to them also. Then spacecraft were sent out, and they returned an abundance of evidence of how hostile the Solar System is.

There was the possibility of planets of other stars, but that was not enough for Isaac Asimov, and he had grown up on the abundantly-inhabited Solar System of 1930’s science-fiction stories.

No, no, the stars are not enough. It’s the solar system we want, the solar system they took away from us thirty years ago.

The solar system we can never have again.

Though since then, hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered. As of 2017 October 5, NASA Exoplanet Archive lists 3529 confirmed planets of other stars, and some of these planets are almost Earthlike.

How it happened is below the fold.

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Sixty Years after Sputnik

On 4 October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik 1 (“Satellite 1”) into orbit. Its full name was Prosteyshiy Sputnik 1, “Elementary Satellite 1”.

It was 58 cm / 23 in across, about the size of a beach ball, and it weighed 83.6 kg / 184 lb. It had four antennas sticking out of it, and a battery-powered radio transmitter with power 1 watt.

It went into orbit atop a modified R-7 ICBM, going into low Earth orbit: 215 km / 134 mi by 939 km / 583 mi with a period of 96.2 minutes.

It transmitted for 21 days, until 26 October 1957, and it stayed in orbit until it burned up in the atmosphere on 4 January 1958.

Its broadcasts, an endlessly repeated beep, were picked up all over the world by amateur radio operators, though the satellite itself was only borderline visible without a telescope.

It wasn’t much, but it was startling. Large numbers of people watched this first artificial satellite and also listened to it. Many Americans came to believe that their nation was getting behind in the Cold War, since the Russians could now send their nuclear bombs to anywhere in the world in less than an hour.

It also did not help that the Russians successfully launched a second satellite a month later, on 3 November 1957. It carried a passenger, the dog Laika, though that dog soon died. It certainly did not help that the US’s attempt to launch a satellite into orbit on 6 December 1957 was a spectacular failure. But the US succeeded in doing so on 31 January 1958.

However, President Eisenhower and his aides stayed cool. They were following the Russians’ rocketry developments with pictures taken from U-2 spyplanes that flew high above the Soviet Union. So they were not very surprised when the Soviet Union got a satellite into orbit.

I’ve even seen the theory that Eisenhower had a reason for liking the Russians going first. He wanted to establish a principle of international law, that outer space is like international waters rather than sovereign territory, like airspace. He was concerned that if the US went first, the Russians would consider a US satellite flying over their territory to be a violation of their sovereignty, just like a US spyplane doing so. So when Sputnik 1 traveled over US territory, he decided to accept it.

The US increased funding for scientific research, adding to the National Science Foundation’s funding and starting the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now DARPA with Defense in front), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The US also made efforts to improve education, with its National Defense Education Act.

The “New Math” also came out of that period, but it was an abysmal flop. It introduced a lot of abstraction far too early, IMO. Though mathematicians love abstraction, non-mathematicians often find it difficult, and math curricula should be designed with that in mind.

The US has faced challenges that some people have compared to Sputnik, like Japan in the 1980’s, but those challenges did not present the visceral level of threat that Sputnik did. Sputnik was a demonstration that the Soviet Union could send nuclear bombs to anywhere in the US in half an hour. Japan did not pose nearly that level of threat. It was at most “We will dig your graves” rather than “we will destroy you”, those two interpretations of Nikita Khrushchev’s “We will bury you”.


Theological Retcons

“Retcon” is short for retroactive continuity, and it is a common literary technique for resolving gaps and discrepancies in serial fictional works, like novels, comic books, movies, TV shows, computer games, etc. Though it is often their fans that produce retcons for them, their creators may also do so.

There are three main types of retcon:

  • Addition. Of features that clarify parts of the existing story world, usually without contradicting existing features. These may take the form of additional adventures that were only alluded to in the original works, like someone’s novels about the Star Trek Eugenics Wars.
  • Modification. Some of the features get revised to make continuity possible. A character who dies in one work and returns in a following work my have their death explained as only a seeming death, something common enough in some genres to be called a comic book death. Thus, Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock had died comic-book deaths. Likewise, some works may be explained as dreams of some of the characters (Pam Ewing dreamed an entire season of Dallas!), an alternate universe, etc.
  • Subtraction. Disliked works are ignored or written out, and they effectively no longer exist. Perhaps the ultimate form of subtraction is the reboot, that is, wiping the slate clean.

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Star Trek TOS Female Uniforms

TOS is The Original Series, from way back when. I was provoked to think about it when I learned of what Melania Trump wore to Houston, Texas when she and her husband visited there after Hurricane Harvey struck that city. She wore high-heeled shoes with 4-in (10-cm) spike heels. FACT CHECK: Melania Trump Wore Heels to Texas After a Hurricane? has the story. She wore them while on the way to Air Force One, but she wore sneakers in Houston. Melania Trump sports heels for second Hurricane Harvey tour, here again, she wore high-heeled shoes only at the Washington DC end of her trip.

Such shoes are impractical for rough ground and natural-disaster areas, and that made me think about the female uniforms of Star Trek TOS. In its two pilot episodes, both sexes wore the same kind of uniform: colored shirts and black pants. But in the series proper, the Enterprise crewwomen wore colored minidresses, a.k.a. tunics or miniskirts.

These uniforms have provoked a lot of controversy, because they seem more suited for male titillation than anything else. But some of the wearers of these uniforms seemed to like them (Star Trek Miniskirts: Feminist or Nah? | Comparative Geeks, Star Trek’s Underappreciated Feminist History by Shannon Mizzi | The Wilson Quarterly). Miniskirts were a big fashion in the 1960’s, and many of their wearers considered them a sign of sexual liberation, liberation from having to be covered up and hidden away. However, that fashion did not last, and many women started wearing pants — and have continued wearing pants to the present day.

TOS’s minidresses were apparently the idea of Grace Lee Whitney, who played Janice Rand, the one with the basket-weave hairstyle. Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, also liked them. But after TOS, women’s uniforms all had pants until the Kelvin-Universe reboot, and that reboot was an exception because it is an alternate-universe version of TOS.

My objection to those minidresses is that they are totally unsuitable for any sort of work except the most physically light sorts of work, and I mean unsuitable in a practical sort of sense. It’s like Melania Trump’s high heels. The later ST iterations’ pants are much more suitable.

I must note something that got it right before Star Trek. In 1955, a certain George Adamski wrote Inside the Spaceships, a purportedly nonfictional work about his meetings with human(oid) inhabitants of other Solar-System planets, inhabitants who have a sort of United Federation of Planets. When he encounters two crewwomen aboard one of the titular spaceships, they are wearing long dresses with jeweled belts. But that is their off-duty clothing, because when on-duty, they wear jumpsuits just like their male counterparts.