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  • Elizabeth Cocking

Did you know? Naming planets

This month . . . . Naming the three planets in our solar system discovered in “modern” times was not a straightforward process. There were several alternatives before arriving at the names we know them as today.

The first five planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - were known in antiquity and named by ancient astronomers after Roman Gods or Goddesses.

Uranus: Discovered in March 1781 by Sir William Herschel. He called the new planet the "Georgian star" (Georgium Sidus) after King George III, which brought him favour, however the name did not catch on particularly in France, where reference to the British king was to be avoided if possible. The name "Uranus" was first proposed by German astronomer Johann Elert Bode to conform with the other planetary names which are from classical mythology. However, it had to wait until 1850 before gaining official acceptance in Britain when the Nautical Almanac Office switched from using the name Georgium Sidus to Uranus. In the image above Uranus is seen in this false-color view from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (August 2003). The brightness of the planet's faint rings and dark moons has been enhanced for visibility. Image credit: NASA/Erich Karkoschka (Univ. Arizona)

Neptune: Urbain Le Verrier, Johann Galle and John Couch Adams all worked independently using mathematics to help discover this planet in 1846. After its discovery it was referred to as “the planet exterior to Uranus” or “Le Verrier’s planet”. The first suggestion for a name came from Galle, who proposed the name “Janus”, while British astronomer James Challis suggested “Oceanus”. Le Verrier claimed the right to name the planet as it was discovered based on his predictions. He suggested the name Neptune which was quickly accepted internationally. In Roman mythology, Neptune is the god of the sea. Other languages use a variation of the name Neptune. In the Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese languages, the planet's name translates to "sea king star."

Pluto (no longer a 'planet' but included here because it was at the time of naming): Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory on 18th February 1930. Lowell Observatory had the right to name the new object and received suggestions from all over the world.

There was a short list of three potential names:

Minerva: already the name for an asteroid

Cronus: had lost favour by being proposed by the unpopular astronomer Thomas J.J. See

Each member of Lowell Observatory was allowed to vote on the short list. Pluto received every vote.

The name Pluto was proposed by Venetia Burney an eleven-year old schoolgirl in Oxford, England. Her grandfather Falconer Madan, a former librarian at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, passed the name to astronomy professor Herbert Hall Turner, who cabled it to colleagues in the United States.

In 1930, Walt Disney was apparently inspired by the name when he created Pluto as Mickey Mouse’s dog. Mickey Mouse's dog was named after the planet, not the other way around.

In 2006 Pluto was reclassified to a dwarf planet by the IAU

And in case you’re wondering . . .

Earth: How Earth got its name is not known. The name "Earth" is derived from both English and German words, which mean “ground”. One interesting fact about the name Earth is it’s the only planet that isn’t named after a Greek or Roman god or goddess.

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