Environment & Science

Planet 9: What should its name be if it's found?

Justin, 4, takes a peak at the sun through a large telescope.
Justin, 4, takes a peak at the sun through a large telescope.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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At the moment, Planet 9 still a theory. It won’t be named until scientists can confirm its existence with pictures.

If and when that happens, it will be up to the members of the International Astronomical Union to decide what we call it.

The IAU not only names objects in orbit — like moons and exo-planets — it also names features on those objects, like craters and volcanoes.

“We like to be consistent,” said Rosaly Lopes, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a member of the IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.

“We wouldn’t like to name a new planet Donald Duck or whatever even though that might be quite fun,” she laughed.

For a planet in our solar system, being consistent means sticking to the theme of giving them names from Greek and Roman mythology. But Lopes added that the precedent could be broken if there is a good, serious reason to do so.

She said that a planet can’t be given a name already used by an asteroid. If it is named for a historical person, that person must have been dead for at least a few years. 

In the past, the IAU has accepted naming suggestions from the general public but ultimately the organization will choose an internal committee to make the final call.

Still Lopes said if a new planet is added to our solar system’s roster, it would be so unexpected that past protocol might be abandoned.

Jean-Luc Margot, an astronomer and UCLA professor, says if the new planet is real we should keep calling it Planet 9.

"I just love the name… I think it's perfect!" he said.

Who named the planets in our solar system?

Five of the planets have been observable for much of human history, according to the Cornell University-based blog "Ask an Astronomer."

That means there are many names for the planets in many languages. According to one website that's compiled some of them, Jupiter is, for instance, Mushtarie in Arabic, Mokusei in Japanese, Ka'aawela in Hawaiian, Guru in Gujarati.

But it was the Roman names that stuck for scientific purposes, and it is these names that are recognized by the IAU.

The Romans named the visible planets based on their movements and appearance. Venus, which appears the brightest, was named for the goddess of love and beauty. Blood-red Mars was named for the god of war.

Uranus and Neptune went by several names before their mythological equivalents became standard.

William Herschel, who discovered Uranus, wanted to name it "Georgium Sidus" after King George III. Other astronomers called it "Herschel" after the discoverer. The astronomer Johann Bode suggested that it would be more appropriate to use the mythological name Uranus, which would match with the five planets that were named in antiquity. Despite the suggestion, the name Uranus was not commonly used until 1850.

Here's the list of current planets and what their names mean.

Planet 9

So what should the name of the new ninth planet be, if (or when) it's discovered?

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