Forget naming planets after mythological gods and goddesses. Now we’re mining pop culture.
Back in July, as you no doubt remember, a team of astronomers led by Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology found a tenth planet. Brown named the new planet Xena, after the warrior princess whose presence graced American TV for 6 years (1995-2001). Brown later said that this name was a bit tongue in cheek, and “not meant for public consumption,” but it stuck, in spite of many other suggestions (my personal favorite was Rupert. Someone at Wikipedia needs to add this entry!)
NOW, it seems that we are really stuck with Xena as the planet’s name.
While observing the new, so-called planet from Hawaii last month, a team of astronomers led by Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology spotted a faint object trailing next to it. Because it was moving, astronomers ruled it was a moon and not a background star, which is stationary.
Of course, there are still some people debating over whether Xena is actually a planet. As MSNBC notes, there really isn’t any official definition for a planet — though it would seem obvious to me that one prerequisite would be that it orbits a sun at some distance (which Xena does). The discovery of Xena’s moon may or may not complicate things. Brown himself wasn’t surprised to find a moon orbiting Xena, since many objects in the Kuiper Belt have moons, and certainly all of them are not planets.
Of course, the name issue may be decided pretty soon. The International Astronomical Union is deciding on “formal names” for both the planet and it’s moon. Probably something more mythological, more … boring.
Personally, I think that the names we have for them say a lot about our culture. Planets (with the obvious exception of our own Earth) have always been named for legendary figures. Xena and Gabrielle certainly fit the bill there. No matter what, I think we’ll end up calling the planet Xena, and the moon Gabrielle, to the eternal consternation of professional astronomers.