New Dwarf Planet Makemake Marks Shift in Naming Trend

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
July 23, 2008
Now that astronomers have nearly run out of Greek and Roman god names to give new cosmic bodies, they are tapping into a more multicultural reservoir of deity monikers.

This week, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced the fourth known dwarf planet will be called Makemake (MAH-keh MAH-keh), after a Polynesian creation god.

Mike Brown of California Institute of Technology, whose team discovered the small body in 2005, was stumped for a while about what to call his latest discovery.

For two years it was known in scientific circles as 2005 FY9. But Brown called it by the nickname Easterbunny, since the discovery was made a few days after Easter.

"Suddenly, it dawned on me: the island of Rapanui," Brown said in a statement. "Why hadn't I thought of this before?"

In the mythology of Rapanui—also known as Easter Island and Isla de Pascua—Makemake was the creator of humans and the god of fertility, an appropriate choice, as Brown's wife was pregnant at the time his team found the dwarf planet.

(Get the facts behind Easter Island's mysterious stone heads.)

IAU adopted the name just a month after establishing a new category of dwarf planets known as plutoids to accommodate Pluto's neighbors beyond Neptune. Pluto, now officially called asteroid 134340, was stripped of planet status in 2006.

"While a rose by any other name would surely smell as sweet, the Kuiper belt object/dwarf planet/plutoid formerly known mostly as 2005 FY9 now smells a good bit sweeter to me," Brown wrote of the decision on his blog.

(Read: "Pluto Gets New Name, as Does 'Xena' [September 15, 2006].)

Bird-Cult Chief

Makemake is one of the largest objects discovered so far in the outer solar system. It's about two-thirds Pluto's size and only slightly dimmer.

Astronomers believe the reddish dwarf planet's surface is covered with frozen methane.

But for Brown, nothing about the plutoid immediately stuck out when it came to suggesting an official name to the IAU.

"A lot of these objects have had sort of an obvious thing to hang the name on," Brown said.

Eris, for example, needed a name just after IAU's demotion of Pluto and the public outcry that followed. Though scientists had fairly exhausted the cadre of Roman and Greek god names, Eris—the goddess of discord and strife—remained.

But Easterbunny was a puzzler, he said, until he researched and found Makemake.

"He was the chief god of the Tangata manu birdman cult and was worshiped in the form of seabirds, which were his incarnation," Brown noted.

"His material symbol, a man with a bird's head, can be found carved in petroglyphs on the island."

A Welcome Shift

Brian Marsden has recorded the names of more than 12,000 asteroids and other planetary bodies during his 30-plus years at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Minor Planet Center.

He sits on both of the two IAU committees that must approve new dwarf planet names.

"By having Makemake not be a Greek or Roman name, we've got away from that idea for these dwarf planets, and I think that's good," Marsden said.

And the creation name fits with an idea one of the IAU naming groups fronted 15 years ago, when it said all the outer solar system bodies yet to be discovered should have creation names.

All except for the ones that have the same orbital rhythm as Pluto, that is. Those, like Pluto, are to be named after underworld mythological deities.

All in a Name

Brown, as the discoverer of so many new celestial objects, has written quite a few names in the stars.

Among them are Quaoar, a creation force of the Los Angeles Tongva tribe; Orcus, the earlier Etruscan counterpart to Pluto; Sedna, the Inuit sea goddess; and Eris. He likes all of them pretty well these days, perhaps except Quaoar.

"In retrospect it is impossible to pronounce," he said. And after Quaoar, his wife almost forbade him to choose a name for their daughter, who is now three. He helped in the end to come up with Lilah: both the Hebrew and Arabic word for night.

Brown may get at least one more name under his cosmic belt, for a dwarf planet called 2003 EL61. But first the IAU will have to decide whether he got scooped or swindled when a competing Spanish team announced it had discovered the new plutoid before Brown's team.

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