New Dwarf Planet Makemake Marks Shift in Naming Trend

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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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