Aloha, Haumea

It’s time for a luau! On Wednesday the IAU finally approved a name for our solar system’s fifth dwarf planet: Haumea, after a Hawaiian fertility goddess.

Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology, whose team found the object in 2004, definitely seems to be on a roll filling the sky with non-Greek or Roman creation deities. Back in July he successfully recommended to the IAU that they follow the dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, and Eris with Makemake, the creator of humans to the Polynesian people of Easter Island.


—NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

The cigar-shaped Haumea, once known as 2003 EL61 (bottom left in the above picture), is named for Hawaii‘s goddess of childbirth.

Legend has it that Haumea’s children sprang from different parts of her body, and the namesake object has two moons that are thought to have formed when an ancient collision knocked off a couple chunks. The moons also received official names, Hi’iaka and Namaka, two of Haumea’s children.

Haumea is also the Hawaiian personification of stone, and the dwarf planet appears to be made almost entirely of rock. This makes it unique among the known objects of the Kuiper belt, a ring of small, icy bodies—remnants of the birth of the solar system—that extends outward from Neptune‘s orbit.

Of course, Eris, Makemake, and Haumea weren’t Brown and co.’s original monikers. His team is fond of giving celestial bodies nicknames that somehow make it into the popular sphere well before IAU’s various naming committees even have a chance to pour some coffee and pull up their chairs to the meeting room tables.

For quite a while Eris was known as “Xena,” of warrior princess fame, and its moon was “Gabrielle” after Xena’s sidekick.

Makemake was “Easterbunny,” because its discovery was made a few days after Easter. Haumea earned the similarly whimsical nickname “Santa,” having been observed just a few days after Christmas, and its moons were dubbed “Rudolph” and “Blitzen.”

Although Brown’s suggested Hawaiian name won IAU approval, his team is not officially credited with discovery of the object. That’s because a somewhat sordid series of events suggests credit for first recognizing the dwarf planet might lie with a team in Spain.

José Luis Ortiz Moreno and colleagues at the Sierra Nevada Observatory were the first to report the object to the IAU-affiliated Minor Planet Center. But investigations later revealed the Spanish group accessed observational data about the object from Brown’s team before announcing the find, a bit of a no-no among the research community. Ortiz and colleagues say they were merely curious and didn’t actually use any of Brown’s data to craft their report.

The IAU hedged its bets and didn’t make a ruling on who found what. They also accepted ideas from both groups on what to call the body.

Ortiz’s team had apparently suggested the dwarf planet be named after an Iberian fertility goddess associated with the underworld, and it’s possible they lost out because IAU limits the names of dwarf planets not linked with Neptune’s gravity to creation deities.

Controversy aside, the real message of the announcement seems to be that astronomers of the 21st century need to take a few courses in comparative mythology if they ever hope to get a name past the IAU.

Although for now Haumea is the last of the officially recognized dwarf planets, the Kuiper belt is still largely unexplored, and some astronomers think there could be dozens or even hundreds more dwarf planets yet to be cataloged.

Personally, I’m waiting for them to find one with bright colors, a scaly surface, or feathery features so I can rally for my favorite creation god, Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of the sky, named for the region’s famously flamboyant bird, the quetzal.

Human Journey