NASA changing racially-charged cosmic body monikers, removes Eskimo Nebula and Siamese Twins Galaxy nicknames
Astronomers use nicknames as they are often more approachable and public-friendly than the official ones
A few bodies in the cosmos — from galaxies to planets and asteroids — have been given racially 'insensitive' and 'harmful' nicknames. Following the nation-wide uproar over racial injustices in the US, NASA said it would reevaluate and fix some of those names. In fact, the space agency has already removed two racially-charged nicknames: Eskimo Nebula and Siamese Twins Galaxy.
The former was a moniker given to planetary nebula NGC 2392, which is the remnant of a Sun-like star. Eskimo, NASA said, has racist roots as it was imposed on the indigenous people of the Arctic region. The latter was used to refer to a part of spiral galaxies, NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, located 52 million light-years away in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster.
Astronomers use nicknames as they are often more approachable and public-friendly than the official ones. For example, a nebula called Barnard 33, earned the name "the Horsehead Nebula" due to its appearance. A few monikers, on the other hand, appear to have been named innocuously. Still, they can be harmful and detract from the science, NASA said.
Now, NASA said it would erase these contentious names from most official documents. In the future, the space agency said they would stick to official names if they cannot find an appropriate replacement. “I support our ongoing reevaluation of the names by which we refer to astronomical objects,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters, said in a statement. “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," he added.
The nebula with the now-defunct name Eskimo was discovered in 1787 by the British-German astronomer William Herschel. From the ground, it resembles a person's head surrounded by a parka hood giving it the contentious name. He described it as “a star 9th magnitude with a pretty bright middle, nebulosity equally dispersed all around. A very remarkable phenomenon.” About 10,000 years ago, the nebula was just an average star, like the Sun, according to experts.
Herschel also discovered the Siamese Twins galaxies. The twin galaxies, which are separated by about 20,000 light-years, are also referred to as Butterfly galaxies. The British-German astronomer is also credited for identifying planet Uranus and several moons such as Titania and Oberon, Saturn's Enceladus and Mimas. He also suggested naming large celestial bodies asteroids in the 1800s. He also observed 2,500 new nebulae and star clusters over 20 years.
Moving forward, NASA said it would work with diversity, inclusion, and equity experts in the astronomical and physical sciences to provide guidance and recommendations for other nicknames. "These nicknames and terms may have historical or cultural connotations that are objectionable or unwelcoming, and NASA is strongly committed to addressing them," said Stephen T Shih, Associate Administrator for Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA Headquarters. "Science depends on diverse contributions and benefits everyone, so this means we must make it inclusive," he added.