Planet to have been named Xena but wasn't....

Detroit Free Press

18 March 2004

Arctic deity goes from ocean to sky

March 18, 2004

Naming a new object in the solar system is no more complicated than naming a dog. But more people care.

I learned that Tuesday when I called astronomer Michael Brown at Cal Tech to ask how the mini-planet he discovered way beyond Pluto came to be named Sedna, after an Inuit goddess of the sea.

Brown had worked 14 hours already, taking questions and kudos. But we spent a breezy half-hour chatting about his big discovery, a tiny orbiting sphere half the size of our moon that's rocky and icy and never warmer than 400 degrees below zero.

"The first rule," he said, "was that its name had to be pronounceable."

He and his collaborators, one from Connecticut and one from Hawaii, learned that rule two years ago when they named another distant hunk of rock, Quaoar. Quaoar (KWAH-o-ar) is the creative force revered by a tribe of Southern California native Americans, "but they were the only ones who could say it."

The warrior planetoid Brown, who is 38, longed to name his new find Xena, after the campy mid-90s TV show about a warrior princess. In fact, between November, when the team first spotted the orbiting sphere, and this week, when its discovery was announced, they called it by that name: Xena.

He doubted, though, that Xena would pass the review of the august International Astronomical Union, based in Paris. It requires planets be named for mythological -- not TV -- characters.

Because their find is so distant and cold, the team decided to look instead to the legends of some polar peoples.

"I thought Norse," said Brown. "I thought Inuit," formerly Eskimo. "There may well be more, but those were the two that came to mind. I prefer the idea of naming things more locally than not," he said, "and Inuit is my local polar region."

I laughed and said, "Your local polar region?" He laughed and said, "Everybody has one."

Copyright 2004 Detroit Free Press Inc.

Return to Main Articles Page