What’s in a planet’s name?

Science and Tech

A newly discovered exoplanet, Kepler-452b, comes the closest of any found so far to matching our Earth-sun system. This artist’s conception of a planetary lineup shows habitable-zone planets with similarities to Earth: from left, Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, the just announced Kepler-452b, Kepler-62f and Kepler-186f. Last in line is Earth itself. Credits: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

“Even Earth has found its other half, why am I still single?” A lot of people are talking about our newly discovered cousin planet –  44 million people have read posts with the hashtag “#AnotherEarth”, and nearly 90,000 have taken part in the discussion.

There have been 1,030 planets discovered to date, but this one is different. Or rather, similar
Out of all the known planets, this one is special because it seems to be a lot like earth. NASA’s Kepler team says this one has the closest match of planet characteristics to Earth. It is 60% larger than Earth and orbits a Sun-like star in a 385 day orbit period, and is in the star’s habitable, or “goldilocks” zone.

The planet is called Kepler-452b, but what’s a Kepler?
Kepler is a telescope, named after 16th century mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, that was launched in 2009. It is part of NASA’s “Discovery” program started more than 20 years ago, and it includes 12 spacecrafts designed to discover various things like asteroids, solar wind and the moon. There are names like GRAIL, Deep Impact, Dawn, and Stardust to name just a few.

Illustration by NASA: Discovery mission instruments. Kepler is near the bottom on the right.

Illustration by NASA: Discovery mission instruments. Kepler is near the bottom on the right.

What is a 452b?

Kepler’s specific job is to search for Earth-size habitable planets around stars beyond our solar system. There’s a wide range of names in outer space, but the people calling the shots are scientists who generally like to keep things simple and organized. Planets outside of our solar system (meaning, they’re revolving around a different star and not our sun) are sometimes named for the instrument discovering them (example: Kepler), or the project that’s looking for them (example CoRoT). There are many Kepler planets – 453 in fact (there’s another one that was discovered after finding our cousin Kepler – 452b!). 452 is the number of the order the planet was discovered. It’s the 452nd planet that Kepler has discovered. The “b” means it is the first one orbiting its sun that has been found (planets are never named with an “a”). If there are brother and sister planets that are discovered by the telescope Kepler, and revolving around the same star that this one is, they will be called Kepler, with the number assigned and the next letter in the alphabet, e.g. Kepler – 452c, Kepler – 452d etc. In fact, Kepler-11 has six other planets in its same orbit, so there’s Kepler – 11b, 11c, 11d, 11e, 11f, and 11g.

Illustration by NASA: Searching for habitable worlds.

Illustration by NASA: Searching for habitable worlds.

Do you have ideas for planet names?
There are a few important rules to keep in mind. If you are a member of the scientific community with an actual idea for a name, there’s a link for that: http://planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov/FeatureNameRequest
Alternately, regular people like you and I can vote in the poll below, or tweet us your idea @CCTV_America.

Sources: NASA, International Astronomical Union, Xinua.net, ESA, IMDB