The International Astronomical Union is not amused. That’s the gist of an email this august body, better known as the IAU, sent recently to people on the advisory board of an online company called Uwingu, which is selling the right to name craters on Mars. We've got the craters, you've got the names, is the essence of the company's pitch. For the right price, Uwingu will put them together.
“Clearly,” says the email from the astronomical union, “the Uwingu campaign is in total violation of IAU rules, which have been around for decades and are internationally approved.” In a related press release, the IAU reiterated that position, arguing that "putting a price tag on naming space objects [goes] against the spirit of free and equal access to space, as well as against internationally recognized standards."
That’s strong stuff, and the folks at Uwingu—some of whom are IAU members themselves—aren’t especially amused either. For one thing, this isn’t the first time the IAU has come down on them. Almost exactly a year ago, Uwingu went into business with a scheme to name exoplanets—planets orbiting distant stars—via crowdsourcing, for a fee. In response, the IAU issued an equally finger-wagging press release, reminding everyone concerned that it's the only organization authorized to issue official names for heavenly bodies. As result, says Alan Stern, the planetary scientist and former NASA official who co-founded Uwingu, “our sales plummeted.”
Ordinarily, the prospect that a private company might have to give up some of its profits wouldn’t make space enthusiasts shed a lot of tears. But Uwingu was set up in part to give money to space-related science and educational projects. It’s helped fund the Allen Telescope Array, for example, used in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It's also helped bankroll a teacher training program and the group Astronomers Without Borders, a global astronomy community. “When the Uwingu Fund reaches a million dollars,” says Stern, “we plan a general call for proposals from scientists and educators, but we're not there yet.”
Company officials deny that Uwingu.com is violating IAU rules at all, because its customers aren’t naming actual craters. “What about naming rights on Mars itself?” asks the site’s FAQ’s. “No, you are simply purchasing a place on Uwingu’s new map of Mars.”
In other words, the company is drawing its own Martian map with crater names left blank and selling people the right to fill them in. You could, in theory, do the same thing with a map of parts of the Earth—except that the cartography of Mars is far less thorough and far less well-known than that of our planet, and the Uwingu names thus have a chance of sticking. The company announced last week that its map will be carried to the Red Planet by the private, one-way Mars One spacecraft—if and when that project ever happens. But, said pioneering exoplanet hunter Geoffrey Marcy, of the University of California, Berkeley in an email, “The crater names from Uwingu aren’t official. Isn’t that the end of the story?”
Even the IAU doesn't dispute Uwingu’s right to proceed with its crater-naming map. “The IAU does not consider itself as having a monopoly on the naming of celestial objects,” it said last year. “[A]nyone can in theory adopt names the way they choose.” It’s more the principle of the thing. “Given the publicity and emotional investment associated with these discoveries,” the statement continued, “worldwide recognition is important and the IAU offers its unique experience for the benefit of a successful public naming process.”
The IAU does have some experience with that process . Pluto’s fifth and sixth moons, Styx and Kerberos, got their names last summer through a public poll sponsored by the SETI Institute and approved by the IAU. But despite its objections to Uwingu's Martian and exoplanet initiatives, it has come offered with no equally public plan to compete with the company's.
For all the sniping between the two groups, the IAU is severely limited in the steps it can take. “There are no internal IAU ‘disciplinary’ actions,” said IAU General Secretary Thierry Montmerle in an e-mail, “In particular, there is no procedure for exclusion, and the Executive Committee is certainly not a court.” It’s all very diplomatic—but diplomats have other strategies too. The IAU’s disapproval could once again causes Uwingu’s sales to plunge. That's an economic sanction if ever there was one.