Nasa has signaled it is joining the social justice movement by changing unofficial and potentially contentious names used by the scientific community for distant cosmic objects and systems such as planets, galaxies and nebulae.
In a statement last week, the space agency said that as the “community works to identify and address systemic discrimination and inequality in all aspects of the field, it has become clear that certain cosmic nicknames are not only insensitive, but can be actively harmful”.
Nasa added that it is “examining its use of unofficial terminology for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion”.
One of the steps Nasa would immediately take would be to drop references to planetary nebula NGC 2392 known as the “Eskimo Nebula”, a dying Sun-like star that is blowing off its outer layers. “Eskimo”, the agency said, “is widely viewed as a colonial term with a racist history, imposed on the indigenous people of Arctic regions.”
It will also cease to refer to a pair of spiral galaxies, NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster referred to as the “Siamese Twins Galaxy”, as part of its effort to align cosmic objects with current thinking and conventions.
“These nicknames and terms may have historical or culture connotations that are objectionable or unwelcoming, and Nasa is strongly committed to addressing them,” said Stephen Shih, associate administrator for diversity and equal opportunity at Nasa. “Science depends on diverse contributions, and benefits everyone, so this means we must make it inclusive.”
In future, Nasa said it will use only the official, International Astronomical Union designations in cases where nicknames are inappropriate. Cosmic objects, such as Barnard 33, nicknamed “the Horsehead Nebula” would be retain their names.
The “Siamese Twin Galaxy” was so-named by Frederick Willem Herschel, the British, German-born astronomer and composer. Herschel also identified and named the “Eskimo Nebula” which he described in January 1787 as “a star 9th magnitude with a pretty bright middle, nebulosity equally dispersed all around. A very remarkable phenomenon.”
Herschel then spent nine years surveying the heavens for double stars, publishing catalogues of nebulae in 1802 (2,500 objects) and in 1820 (5,000 objects). Among Herschel’s achievements was to note a new object in the constellation of Gemini.
It was confirmed to be a new planet, named Uranus, and considered to be the first planet to be discovered since antiquity. He also identified the planet’s moons, Titania and Oberon, as well as Enceladus and Mimas, both moons of Saturn.
But his nomenclature will now fall from official use at the US agency, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of Nasa’s science mission directorate in Washington.
“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,” Zurbuchen said.