Mars Crater-Naming Campaign Sparks an International Blowup

Image: Mars craters

This detailed artist's rendering of the planet Mars, based on high-resolution spacecraft imaging, reveals some of the many craters that cover much of its surface. M. Kornmesser / IAU

A fundraising campaign that lets Internet users give unofficial names to craters on Mars has triggered an angry exchange with the group that gives the official names to such features — the International Astronomical Union.

The crater-naming campaign is the latest controversy to pit the IAU against Uwingu, a commercial venture that raises money for science and education through celestial name games. Uwingu's Mars project, unveiled last month, lets players nickname the estimated 500,000 Martian craters that have not yet been labeled. The cost ranges from $5 to $5,000, depending on the size of the crater.

Uwingu makes clear that the names carry no official sanction — nevertheless, the idea of taking in money for placing names on a map irked the IAU.

"Such initiatives go against the spirit of free and equal access to space, as well as against internationally recognized standards," the IAU said Tuesday in a statement. "Hence no purchased names can ever be used on official maps and globes."

'Self-licking ice cream cone'

The statement prompted an equally strong-worded response from Uwingu co-founder Doug Griffith, a lawyer specializing in aviation and spaceflight issues.

"The IAU needs to stop being the self-licking ice cream cone of the scientific community, and recognize that as long as its existence is merely to gratify its own puritanical principles and sense of elitism, it is not going to be a part of the next wave of space exploration," Griffith told NBC News in an email. "That will be done by others who recognize that science exists for the benefit of the world, not for the scientists."

For nearly a century, the IAU has been in charge of approving the names of celestial bodies and features ranging from asteroids to the mountains of Venus and the moons of Pluto. Usually, the procedure is a non-controversial as it can get, involving subcommittees and working groups drawn from astronomers around the world. But the Paris-based organization sparked a spirited debate in 2006 when it laid down a definition of planethood that excluded Pluto.

One of Uwingu's founders, planetary scientist Alan Stern, is the principal investigator for NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and a critic of the IAU's ruling on planethood. Last year, Uwingu ran afoul of the IAU over its earlier campaign to let users suggest names for extrasolar planets. Despite the IAU's disapproval, Uwingu gave the nod to Albertus Alauda as the "people's choice" name for Alpha Centauri Bb, the exoplanet that's closest to our solar system.

More than 7,000 names and counting

Griffith said Uwingu's current campaign has already brought in more than 7,000 registered names — including "Nick's Little Hole in the Ground" and "Stella's Scientific Saucer Dent."

The company has partnered with Mars One, the Dutch-based venture that aims to send explorers on one-way trips to Mars starting in the 2020s, to have the Uwingu names listed on Mars One's maps. Some of the proceeds from Uwingu's projects go toward expenses, but the other proceeds will go in the form of grants to Mars One as well as other science education groups such as the SETI Institute, Astronomers Without Borders, the International Dark-Sky Association and the Galileo Teacher Training Program.

Image: Crater names
Uwingu's crater-naming project is covering the Martian map with new monikers. Uwingu

If 500,000 names are submitted, Uwingu estimates that would produce a $10 million fund for space science and education.

In its statement, the IAU said it favored public engagement in the celestial naming process. It pointed approvingly to the crowdsourcing campaign that produced names for two recently discovered moons of Pluto (although the voters' top choice, Vulcan, was ruled out in favor of the No. 2 and 3 choices, Kerberos and Styx). The IAU said the public should follow "the officially recognized (and free) methods" for suggesting names, which give the final say to discoverers and the IAU.

Who really gets the final word?

In response, Griffith told NBC News that the IAU was out of step with the times.

"The problem underlying the IAU’s dislike toward Uwingu’s populist approach to naming things in space is that the IAU has become so absorbed in its perceived ownership of all things astronomical that it is socially disconnected from the rest of the world, and has no interest in making astronomy exciting and accessible to the public," Griffith said.

He also said the IAU was "intellectually dishonest, or perhaps just naive" in asserting that only IAU-approved names would be used on future maps of Mars. Even today, NASA's Curiosity rover team routinely comes up with new names for Martian features ranging from Mount Sharp (which the IAU calls Aeolis Mons) to Yellowknife Bay.

"What the IAU is asking for is not free and equal access, but a monopoly."

"The IAU has no idea whether government explorations will use the IAU’s committee-selected names; the IAU’s names are no more 'official' that the public's, and government space programs are funded by public tax dollars, not the IAU," Griffith said. "Second, all indications are that it will be private enterprise that gets humans to Mars, perhaps even with publicly crowdsourced funding, and why would a company like SpaceX, Mars One, or Inspiration Mars decide to use IAU names instead of names given by the public?"

A nonprofit space advocacy effort called Citizens in Space sided with Uwingu over what it called the IAU's temper tantrum. "What the IAU is asking for is not free and equal access, but a monopoly," the group said in a statement.

However, Citizens in Space noted that Uwingu won't have the final word on Martian names either.

"When Mars is settled by human beings, the settlers will bestow their own names on local features (as humans always do)," the group said in its statement. "It is those names, not the formal scientific names bestowed by IAU or the informal names sold by Uwingu, that will go down in history books. Many of those will be names that IAU would not approve. There will be names like 'Broken Axle Crater' (just as the American West is filled with place names like 'Dead Mule Gulch.'). No one will much care what astronomers back on Earth think about them."