Naming the New Planet: What About "Bob"?

August 10, 2005

The newfound ball of ice and rock that could be the solar system's tenth planet isn't just any Tom, Dick, or Harry. But could it be a Bob?

The discovery was announced on July 29, and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has yet to even decide whether the body is a planet. But space fans around the world are losing no time trying to name the object, which orbits beyond Pluto and is bigger than the ninth planet.

Michael Brown, the California Institute of Technology astronomer who led the discovery team, got the ball rolling.

Because the provisional, number-based names are tough to remember, "whenever we discover something big, we give it a nickname," Brown said. So in place of the object's provisional name, 2003 UB313, Brown's team adopted a catchier—and more swashbuckling—moniker.

"We had planned on calling any object bigger than Pluto 'Xena,'" Brown said, "but only tongue-in-cheek." The name refers not only to TV's warrior princess but also to the Roman numeral ten, or X.

"Besides, we thought the solar system could use another woman, to balance out the male hierarchy," he said. Of the nine recognized planets, only one, Venus, is named for a female.

The Rules of the Name

As the discoverer of UB313, Brown gets first dibs on naming it, though he is required to keep his suggestion secret. The final decision is up to the IAU.

Since the discovery of a new planet was largely unexpected, the IAU never drafted formal rules for naming planets. It does, however, restrict the naming of "small bodies." Among the guidelines:

• Names must be pronounceable.

• Names should have 16 characters or fewer.

• Single-word names are preferred.

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