How To Name A Planet

With the discovery of a rocky, roughly earth-sized planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, not only are we that much closer to video games coming to life, we may be faced with a question of what name we might assign to a planet roughly like our own. To date, largely only science fiction authors have had to confront this creative dilemma.

Being part of the Centauri system suggests naming the planets after mythological centaurs. The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology names the following centaurs: Agrius, Amphion, Anchius, Argeius, Chiron, Daphnis, Doupon, Elatus, Eurytion, Hippotion, Homadus, Ispoples, Melanchaetes, Nephele, Oreius, Pholus, Phrixus, Silenus, and Thereus. All nice and Greek-sounding. Chiron, Daphnis, and Pholus are probably the most well-known of these. Many centaurs appear in myths about the labors of Hercules, as well. 

Now, all of the named centaurs are male except for Nephele. Confusingly, one version lists Nephele as the name of the nymph who was the mother of the centaurs but not a centaur herself. So since almost all of the centaurs are male except for one, and since it’s quite likely that if there is a rocky planet in the (astronomically speaking) narrow zone in which liquid water on the surface is possible, perhaps the coincidence of exceptionality would suggest that such a “sweet spot” planet be named for this centaur also capable of bearing life (in the myth, anyway).

But there’s no particular reason why we’d have to go that route, as far as I can tell. It’s rather arbitrary that the multiple star system in which this planet (and presumably its as-yet-undetected sister planets) orbit is named for a centaur and the other stars in the the constellation are not necessary “near” one another in three-dimensional space. Would naming rights go to the scientist who discovered the planet? Perhaps name the planet after that scientist? There’s no entity with centralized authority here although most who involve themselves in such things seem to respect the International Astronomical Union and its naming conventions. Maybe to a corporate sponsor? “Pepsi Presents: The Colony at Alpha Centauri Bb-4. Alpha Centauri Bb-4: The Planetary Choice Of A New Generation!”

This is not exactly among the most pressing problems confronting our civilization at the moment, I know. But it’s a good deal less depressing than the ones that are.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Interesting article….but are you seriously considering naming the planet after a female just because she’s female? Last time I checked, reproduction was not a mitotic event and actually required two parents.

    • Yes I am suggesting exactly that. I have an affinity for females. And as I point out in the OP mythology gives us only one female centaur among many males which alone make her special. So reserving a special spot for that name seems appropriate. And in greek again myth, Gaia is female and symbolizes earth, the mother of life and the planet upon which we live. Again, a symbolic pointer towards preferring female rather than male symbols.

  2. What’s wrong with ‘Glyph’? Succinct, one-syllable like ‘Earth’, open to multiple interpretations, reflective of one of the great thinkers of our time*…

    *Prince, not me**.

    **But also, totally me.

  3. Well, we named our planet “Dirt”, essentially, so maybe we should stick with something that sounds more mundane, to stick with the convention.

  4. I like the idea of theme naming stellar systems. Ours has a Roman god theme, and I think a centaur theme for Alpha Centauri makes sense.

  5. Wikipedia informs me thusly:

    “It has a mass at least 113% of Earth’s and orbits Alpha Centauri B with a period of 3.236 days. Orbiting at a distance of 6 million kilometers from the star, 4% of the distance of the Earth to the Sun and ten times closer than the orbit of Mercury, the planet has an estimated surface temperature of at least 1500 K (roughly 1200 °C), too hot to be habitable.”


    • It’s a good reason not to pick a name dependant on it being in the life zone, since it apparently isn’t. But give things a few years; extrasolar planets that are close to their star are easier to find, so we may be finding more potentially life-bearing planets as time passes, we take more observations, and instruments get better.

  6. Seems a bit presumptuous; perhaps we should wait until we’re sure there’s nobody already living there before we go naming it.

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