In the constellation Cassiopeia there’s an unnamed star orbited by a colossal gas giant the size of Jupiter. It’s called star HD 17156. At 255 light-years away, it’s something astronomers call an exoplanet: a planet that’s outside our solar system.
Now, the International Astronomical Union is holding a competition to give the two a name — with the public casting votes through November 14 for the top three finalists.
One of the 10 semi-finalists is a member of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham.
“I chose Nushagak and Mulchatna. Because I’m indigenous to this area and I love our way of life here. I grew up fishing, so it meant a lot to me,” said Ivory Adajar, a 36-year-old dental assistant who grew up in Dillingham.
The Nushagak and Mulchatna are salmon-rich rivers that run through the Bristol Bay watershed. Adajar said she chose the Nushagak for the star because it is her home, a place where she commercial fishes for salmon every summer. She chose the Mulchatna for the exoplanet.
“Not only for its interstellar sound, but because it connects to an area of land that’s compromised by mining,” she said, referring to the proposed Pebble Mine, which, if permitted, would be built at the headwaters of the Mulchatna. Critics of the project say it would threaten the area’s ecosystem.
“The fear of losing this wondrous and natural habitat, and path of our only resource of wild salmon — I couldn’t think of a better way to honor my culture and heritage,” Adajar said.
The seven members of the U.S. naming committee chose the semifinalists, after consulting astronomers, students and educators. Those names had to be open-ended enough to inspire names for other undiscovered celestial bodies in the same solar system. Adajar saw that potential in the river systems of Bristol Bay. She also sees parallels between the region’s waterways and the movements of the exoplanet.
“It described the exoplanet as having a wiggly, eccentric path around the star, which reminded me of the wild salmon that we have here, that also wiggle and have an eccentric path out into the ocean, and come back to these fresh waters,” she said.
Each country on Earth has been given a star and exoplanet to name. The United Nations designated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Both rivers are on traditional Yup’ik lands. In Yup’ik, the Nushagak’s name is Iilgayaq, and the Mulchatna is Paltcaniq.
Derrick Pitts is the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. He says names should hold cultural, geographic, or historical significance “worthy of being assigned to a celestial object.”
“The International Astronomical Union is trying to provide guidelines so that the names aren’t frivolous in any way, aren’t already in use, and really have some significant meaning,” he explained.
Pitts said the distant, sun-like star isn’t particularly remarkable. But he says a naming competition sparks people’s interest in astronomy.
“If there are so many other planets out there, it sort of multiplies the possibility that maybe there is some life elsewhere in the galaxy or elsewhere in the universe,” Pitts said. “It’s the whole idea of inviting people to be aware of this kind of astronomical research that’s taking place, that is really expanding our understanding of the universe to such a great degree, and in a sense, to such a personal degree.
The next phase of the contest will be decided by public poll. Alaskans — and everyone else on Earth with internet access — can vote for their favorite entry online through November 14.
The top three finalists will advance to the astronomer union’s committee which is expected to announce the winner in December.