Dwarf Planet Fight Yields Contentious New Name

September 23, 2008

The last of the confirmed dwarf planets finally has a name: Haumea, the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth and fertility.

In an apparent compromise for the two astronomers who claim to have discovered the dwarf planet on different occasions, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) kept the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain on its books as the discovery location.

A Sierra Nevada team lead by Jose-Luis Ortiz of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía filed the first report on the object—then called 2003 EL61—with an IAU committee in 2005.

But the IAU gave the honor of selecting an official name to planet hunter Mike Brown and colleagues at the California Institute of Technology, who supposedly first saw the object in 2004.

Controversy had erupted when Brown's group disputed the Spanish claim, saying that Ortiz's team robbed them of the discovery on the eve of their publication about the object.

IAU left the discoverer's name blank on their final report issued last week announcing the selected designation of Haumea.

"Given the IAU's rule that the discoverer gets to name the object, this is the closest the IAU is willing to go to actually come out and say that they believe that I am the actual discoverer," Brown said.

Regardless of who found it, he said, it's good to get a formal name for another of Pluto's neighbors.

"I feel that each new dwarf planet that gets a name or gets added to the 'official' list is a great thing, because the more and more that get added, the more the public starts to realize just how populated the area beyond Neptune is."

From "Santa" to Haumea

As a member of the Kuiper belt—a ring of distant, icy objects orbiting beyond Neptune—Pluto has so many similar neighbors that the IAU created the "dwarf planet" category in 2006 to accommodate them.

Pluto became the inaugural member by losing its planetary status, eliciting much grief among astronomy buffs.

Continued on Next Page >>


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