Astronomers dub new dwarf planet 'Biden.' Will the name stick?

The team that spotted what is believed to a dwarf planet have nicknamed their discovery 'Biden.' But unless the IAU changes its rules or the Vice President somehow attains mythological apotheosis, it will end up being named something else.

By , Staff writer

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    Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's 2014 Legislative Summit in Washington, Thursday, March 27, 2014
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US Vice President Joe Biden has a celestial namesake.

The icy body, located 7.5 billion miles from Earth and thought to be a new dwarf planet, is officially named 2012 VP113. Its discoverers have nicknamed it VP, and then, by logical extension, "Biden."

By comparison, Pluto at its farthest point is 4.67 billion miles from Earth. At lightspeed, it would take about 11 hours to travel from the Earth to Biden, says Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC and an author of the paper titled "A Sedna-like body with a perihelion of 80 astronomical units" published in journal Nature.  

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Biden is 280 miles wide and is less than half the size of its neighbor Sedna, discovered almost a decade ago.

It's discovery can help us learn "a lot about the early history of the solar system, and it's not just the architecture of the solar system," Scott Kenyon, who studies the formation of planetary systems at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass, told the Monitor's Pete Spotts on Wednesday. "This is a big deal, from the point of view of understanding where we come from."

The International Astronomical Union will now decide what to call it, and it almost certainly won't be 'Biden.' According to IAU rules, "names for persons or events known primarily for their military or political activities are acceptable only after 100 years elapsed since the person died or the event occurred," says the IAU.

Additionally, Joe Biden is not, as far as we can tell, a mythological deity.The five dwarf planets currently recognized by the IAU – Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris – get their names from Greek, Roman, and Polynesian mythologies. The frigid Sedna, which has not officially been recognized as a dwarf planet but probably is one, is named for the Inuit goddess of the sea.

The ultimate naming authority lies with IAU, but discoverers do have a say. They can suggest a name to the working groups for Small Body Nomenclature and Planetary System Nomenclature, who will then jointly decide the name of the dwarf planet.

The name has to be "suitable" in the sense that it is expected to "reflect the characteristics of the body itself, and be an appropriate moniker derived from mythology. Objects, including dwarf planets, far beyond the orbit of Neptune are expected to be given the name of a deity or figure related to creation; for example Makemake, the Polynesian creator of humanity and god of fertility, and Haumea, the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and childbirth." 

In the case of Biden, its discoverers have not submitted an official name yet. "It will take another year or so to get the orbit precisely known, but at that time we can submit a name. Because the object is so far away, it is very cold.  Like minus 400 degrees. So we are exploring naming the object after some sort of Arctic mythology possible from the Inuits or Eskimos," Sheppard told the Monitor.

There are naming rules for other celestial bodies such as comets and asteroids.

For example – a comet should include a prefix that indicates the type of comet. It should also have the year of discovery.

If you have a name in mind that you would like to bestow upon a celestial object, the IAU has some sage advice: "Go out and discover one!"

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