Sciency Words: Xena (An A to Z Challenge Post)

April 28, 2017

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, X is for:

XENA

In January of 2005, astronomers at the Palomar Observatory in California discovered a new “planet.” Except this planet had a highly inclined (tilted) and wildly eccentric (non-circular) orbit. Pluto’s modestly eccentric, Neptune-crossing orbit was weird enough, but this? Planets aren’t supposed to have orbits like this, are they?

The Palomar Observatory astronomers decided to name their discovery Xena.

Personally, I think that name fits: a convention defying name for what was, at the time, a convention defying planet. But Xena was only intended to serve as a placeholder until the International Astronomy Union (I.A.U.) could assign an official name, and they chose the name Eris.

In Greek mythology, Eris was the goddess of discord. This name also seems fitting, given the amount of discord that would soon follow, because Eris was officially classified not as a planet but as a dwarf planet, along with Pluto.

There is now a proposal to reclassify Pluto, Eris, and about a hundred other Solar System objects as planets. It’s a proposal I like, for reasons I tried to lay out in a previous post, but it’s not something I expect to go anywhere. Most professional astronomers seem to be against it.

Anyway, the story of Xena/Eris is an example of something that seems to happen a lot in the field of astronomy. New discoveries get temporary names (pop culture references aren’t uncommon here) until the I.A.U. can review the discovery and assign a name officially.

As another example, the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission came up with a ton of names for geological features on Pluto and its moon, Charon. Many of these names came from Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, The Lord of the Rings… apparently there are a ton of nerds at NASA. You can expect the I.A.U. to change most of those names—but perhaps not all of them. Sometimes a pop culture reference gets the I.A.U.’s okay (especially Lord of the Rings references, I’ve noticed).

In the case of Eris, Eris’s moon (originally named Gabrielle) was officially renamed Dysnomia. Dysnomia was the ancient goddess of lawlessness, and Lucy Lawless was the actress who played Xena on T.V. That was apparently an intentional, though rather convoluted, way to honor what could have been Xena: Warrior Dwarf Planet.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, in the beginning there was the Big Bang. Then there was ylem. A whole lot of ylem.