Dwarf Planet Fight Yields Contentious New Name

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
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.

The former planet was quickly joined by the former asteroid Ceres, then by the recently named Eris and Makemake. Until last week, the object called 2003 EL61 was the last officially recognized dwarf planet yet to be named.

Brown said he had been calling the body "Santa" during the months he was preparing for publication, because he first saw it just a few days after Christmas in 2004.

Credit for suggesting the name Haumea goes to David Rabinowitz of Yale University, one of Brown's team members.

The goddess seemed an apt inspiration, given that she is the personification of stone in Hawaiian myth. The elongated Haumea is about a third the size of Pluto and appears to be mostly made of rock. (Read more about Haumea's naming decision on our space editor's blog.)

What's more, astronomers think the dwarf planet and its moons are victims of a past collision that split them apart.

"Just like the Kuiper belt object Haumea is the central object in a cloud of Kuiper belt objects that are the pieces of it, the goddess Haumea is the mother of many other deities in Hawaiian mythology who are pieces pulled off of her body," Brown wrote on his blog.

The dwarf planet's two moons also got names drawn from the goddess Haumea's children: Hi'iaka, the patron goddess of the Big Island and of hula dancers, and Namaka, a water spirit.

Compromise Name

Ortiz, meanwhile, stands by his team's assertions that they discovered the dwarf planet and should have been given naming rights.

"I am not happy with the name and the particular procedure that was carried out in this case," Ortiz said.

He had suggested the name Ataecina, an Iberian underworld mother goddess, and sees no reason for its dismissal.

"I am no expert in ancient religions and mysterious deities, but even if Ataecina were judged unsuitable by the pertinent commission … a neutral name would have been much better than Haumea," Ortiz said.

Brian Marsden, of Harvard University's Minor Planet Center, is a member of both IAU committees that must approve new dwarf planet names.

He said the name was "a sort of compromise."

"After all, Mike Brown certainly discovered the satellites," he said.

Brown "had every right to propose names for the satellites, and it would be normal to have some connection between the names of the satellites and the name of the primary."

On his blog, Brown remains quite clear that he believes the Spanish team used data from his telescope to confirm their discovery before it was announced.

The Caltech astronomer has many undisputed discoveries in the Kuiper belt—including Eris and Makemake—and the list stands to grow even more.

There are now about 50 objects in Pluto's neighborhood that are known to fit the definition of a dwarf planet, Brown said.

Whether they'll each get names, he added, is anybody's guess.

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