New Dwarf Planet Makemake Marks Shift in Naming Trend

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.

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