Science | August 9, 2020 12:27 pm

Citing Sensitivity Concerns, NASA Changes Certain Galactic Nicknames

International Astronomical Union designations will be used for certain planets and galaxies in the future

This composite image of NGC 2392 contains X-ray data from Chandra in pink showing the location of million-degree gas near the center of the planetary nebula.

Sports teams across the nation aren’t the only things experiencing a name change in light of a newfound awareness of racial sensitivity. That’s understandable: the sad truth of the matter is that numerous things over the years have been given names or nicknames which haven’t aged remotely well. And, based on a new report at The Guardian, the latest area of concern can be found in the cosmos.

The article, by Edward Helmore, explores NASA’s recently-announced decision to change the nicknames of certain celestial bodies. On August 5, the agency announced that it was “examining its use of unofficial terminology for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

In cases where this terminology proved harmful or problematic, the agency would revert to using the International Astronomical Union designation for the celestial body in question.

The report suggests that this is an ongoing process, but also cites a few examples where nicknames will be shelved in favor of the official International Astronomical Union terminology.

As an initial step, NASA will no longer refer to planetary nebula NGC 2392, the glowing remains of a Sun-like star that is blowing off its outer layers at the end of its life, as the “Eskimo Nebula.” “Eskimo” is widely viewed as a colonial term with a racist history, imposed on the indigenous people of Arctic regions. Most official documents have moved away from its use. NASA will also no longer use the term “Siamese Twins Galaxy” to refer to NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, a pair of spiral galaxies found in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster.

Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, spoke with The Guardian about the decision. “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,” Zurbuchen said — an understandable and admirable goal.

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