Cosmic names can be drab, with astronomers naming nebulas and stars with strings of numbers and letters. Names like NGC 6302 fail to inspire the imagination and belie the beauty hidden in the depths of space. A simple nickname used by NASA, such as the Butterfly Nebula, can go a long way to give an object like NGC 6302 more character.
But there are some cosmic nicknames NASA fears can be insensitive or hurtful towards people who have been historically excluded from the scientific fields.
In a bid to address concerns of systemic discrimination and inequality, the US space agency will reexamine its use of unofficial terminology.
For starters, NASA has vowed to no longer refer to the planetary nebula NGC 2392 as the Eskimo Nebula.
NGC 2392 is a beautiful cloud of stellar gas surrounding the remains of a Sun-like star, some 5,000 light-years from Earth.
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According to NASA, the term Eskimo has unfortunate colonial connotations and a history of racism, as it was imposed on the indigenous people of the Arctic circle.
Similarly, NASA will no longer refer to the galaxies NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 as the Siamese Galaxies.
NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 are a pair of spiral galaxies found in the Virgo Cluster.
Moving forward, NASA will only use the official names approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
The move towards more diversity and inclusion was welcomed by Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
He said: “I support our ongoing reevaluation of the names by which we refer to astronomical objects.
“Our goal is that all names are aligned with our values of diversity and inclusion, and we’ll proactively work with the scientific community to help ensure that.
“Science is for everyone, and every facet of our work needs to reflect that value.”
Nicknames such as the Horsehead Nebula, also known as Barnard 33, will likely remain unchanged.
Others, like the Giant Squid Nebula (Ou4) and Flying Bat Nebula (Sh2-129) simply serve to describe the nebulas’ eerily animal-like shapes.
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But NASA will employ diversity and inclusion experts to make sure all of these nicknames are approachable and public-friendly.
NASA aims to provide through the review new guidance and recommendation for scientists to follow when nicknaming new discoveries.
Stephen T. Shih of Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA said: “These nicknames and terms may have historical or culture connotations that are objectionable or unwelcoming, and NASA is strongly committed to addressing them.
“Science depends on diverse contributions, and benefits everyone, so this means we must make it inclusive.”
The International Astronomical Union, which officially catalogues and names stars does not follow any strict formats.
However, since 2016, the IAU’s Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) looks at how history and culture worldwide has influenced star names.
The IAU said: “For instance, shorter, one-word names are preferred, as are those that have their roots in astronomical, cultural or natural world heritage.
“This is to preserve continuity and to ensure the long history of astronomical discovery is recognised.
“Many cultures around the world have traditional names for bright stars and asterisms. Most names still in use today have their roots in Greek, Latin and Arabic cultures, while some have more recent origins in the 19th and 20th centuries.