A star and exoplanet will be named ‘Nushagak’ and ‘Mulchatna’

Exoplanet illustration is conceptual. (International Astronomical Association)

Ivory Adajar couldn’t sleep early Tuesday morning. Months ago she had submitted two names in a competition to name a star and exoplanet for the United States. She tuned in to a press conference broadcasting from Paris, France, where the International Astronomical Union announced the winners. 

“I was shocked, I was very excited,” Ivory Adajar said. “I broke down and cried and ultimately I was very honored.”

Adajar is a member of the Curyung Tribe. She grew up in Dillingham. Now she lives in North Carolina, working as a dental assistant, and returns to Bristol Bay to commercial fish for salmon with her father each summer.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the International Astronomical Union showcased 13 of the 114 countries around the world that participated in the contest. The U.S was one of them.

“The United States has names of rivers associated with the Bristol Bay Watershed in Alaska which is famous for the wild salmon which sustain the local indigenous communities,” said IAU president-elect Debra Elmegreen. “The star is Nushagak which is a regional river near Dillingham, Alaska. And the exoplanet is Mulchatna, a tributary of the Nushagak river.”

Soon after the announcement, Adajar phoned her family in Dillingham around 2:00 a.m. with the news.  

“The first thing I thought about was my grandma, my kids, my parents and my ancestors; all my friends and family who enjoy and live this way of life out there subsistence fishing and commercial.” She said. “Man, what a cool thing for us to have this legacy for our culture and our heritage.”

Around 900 names were submitted for the contest and a little over 2,600 votes were cast. Nushagak and Mulchatna received 25.7% of the votes, just edging out Yellowstone and Old Faithful at 25.3%. In third place was Cherokee and Sequoia, receiving 10% of the vote.  

Derrick Pitts is the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute Science Museum. He served as a member of the IAU’s U.S exoplanet naming team. Pitts and the team were happy with the results.

“It’s a really cool thing to be able to have the opportunity to be connected with the universe in this way,” Pitts said. “Both for Dillingham, but especially for Ivory, her family and her effort to want to recognize the significance of the two rivers in the region and what it does for the people there.”

For names to be eligible, they had to be of longstanding cultural, historical and geographical significance. 

A NASA model of the F-type star HD 17156 and a gas giant exoplanet that orbits it – HD 17156. That exoplanet takes 21.2 days to complete one orbit of its star, and is 0.16278 AU from its star. Its discovery was announced in 2007.CREDIT COURTESY OF NASA

They also had to be broad enough to inspire names for additional objects discovered in the exoplanet’s system. Ivory Adajar took this into consideration when choosing the rivers.

“I came up with a bunch of different names but Nushagak and Mulchatna were obviously my first choice,” She said. “It might be cool to have names like Kvichak, Aleknagik and also names of the different types of salmon and resources that we have there can also reflect what they find out there in space.”

The scientific name of the star is HD17156. The newly-named star and exoplanet are 255 light-years away.

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