Monthly Archives: September 2015

Naming ExoWorlds: #YoEstrellaCervantes

How many words are out there? To date, we know the existence of 1958 planets orbiting around stars different to our Sun. These objects are defined as “exoplanets”: astrophysicists estimate that our Galaxy, the Milky Way, would host trillions of planets.

How do we name the exoplanets? Almost the 100% of these names are not proper names but a designation given by letters and numbers coming from star catalogs, such as Kepler 88b or OGLE 2015 BLG 0966b. Following the convention adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an exoplanet’s name is normally formed by taking the name of its parent star and adding a lowercase letter. The first planet discovered in a system is given the designation “b” and later planets are given subsequent letters. For example, the second planet discovered around star HD 7924 was named HD 7924c. Indeed, these names might be convenient… but they are not easy to remember by the non-astronomers.

Screenshot from the #NameExoWorlds website.
Credit: NameExoWorlds, IAU.

In 2014, following a recommendation of its Working Group “Exoplanets for the Public”, the IAU decided to put real names to a few of these exoplanets and their parent stars. By April 2015 a 20 ExoWorlds list is published in the NameExoWorlds website. The IAU proposes astronomical clubs and non-profit organisations to send proposals to put proper names to the 15 stars and 32 exoplanets which are located in these 20 planetary systems (some stars already have proper names, such as Fomalhaut or Pollux). These organisations only have to follow some easy IAU’s rules to name stars and planets. In August 2015, during the IAU XXIX General Assembly in Honolulu (USA), a massive press release at a special public ceremony announced that the general public can vote to rank the proposed names to these 20 planetary systems following the internet address:

The hashtag is #NameExoWorlds and the deadline for this is next 31st October. The IAU is expecting a million votes or more worldwide. You can cast your vote just visiting that website, reading the name proposals for each planetary system, and clicking in “Vote” in your favorite option. Only a vote per device and per planetary system in allowed however you can emit your vote using different devices (i.e., laptops, tablets and smartphones).

One of the planetary systems that the IAU proposes to give proper name is that located around the star mu Arae (μ Arae). Mu Arae is a star similar to the Sun, located at around 50 light years from us, in the Ara (the Altar) constellation. Mu Arae is slightly older than the Sun (astronomers estimate it has an age of 6.3 billion years), it around 10% more massive than the Sun but around 90% more luminous that the star of the Solar System. We have know for many years that Mu Arae has four planets: mu Arae b, c, d and e. The Sociedad Española de Astronomía (Spanish Astronomical Society, SEA) is promoting the proposal of names given to the star mu Arae and its planets by the Planetarium of Pamplona (Spain). They proposed to name mu Arae as Cervantes, and its planets with the names of the main characters of the Quixote: Quijote (mu Arae b), Dulcinea (mu Arae c), Rocinante (mu Arae d) and Sancho (mu Arae e). This proposal, with the hashtag #YoEstrellaCervantes, is also supported by the prestigious Instituto Cervantes, the public Spanish institution that promotes the Spanish language and culture around the world. The “Instituto Cervantes” has headquarters in 90 cities of 43 countries, Sydney included.

Artistic representation of star mu (μ) Arae and its planetary system. The #YoEstrellaCervantes initiative proposes to name this star as Cervantes and its planets Dulcinea, Rocinante, Quijote and Sancho, following the main characters of Don Quixote (“Don Quijote” in Spanish).

If you like the #YoEstrellaCervantes initiative, please vote for it going to this webpage:

and clicking in the “vote” button for Cervantes. You can also ask your friends and relatives to vote #YoEstrellaCervantes and help put names to these 20 planetary systems. You can cast an unique vote per system per device (laptop, computer, tablet, smartphone). Remember the deadline is next 31st Oct.

The website compiles, in Spanish, all the information about #YoEstrellaCervantes, including news and related activities. One of my favorite initiatives was created by Laura Morrón in collaboration with comic illustrator Jordi Bayarri and teacher Juan Carlos García-Bayonas. They developed a comic and great didactic material to promote #YoEstrellaCervantes in the classroom. Their material put together Science and Literature with the aim of approaching the #NameExoWorlds and #YoEstrellaCervantes initiatives to young students (and their parents).

Comic promoting the #YoEstrellaCervantes proposal for star mu Arae.
Credit: Text: Laura Morrón, Drawings: Jordi Bayarri..

Where is mu (μ) Arae located in the sky? This star belongs to Ara constellation (the Altar), a region of the Southern Sky between Scorpius (the Scorpion) and the Triangulum Australe (the Southern Triangle). Hence, this constellation cannot be seen in the majority of the Northern Hemisphere (although it was already described by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolomey as one of the 48 Greek constellations). Seen from the Southern Hemisphere, this region of the sky is spectacular. Mu Arae has a visual magnitude of 5.2, therefore, although being a faint star, it can be seen with the naked eye from dark place. However, because of the huge number of faint stars found within these constellations (which are located very close to the Galactic Plane), it can be a bit hard to accurately identify mu Arae under a very dark place, far from the light pollution.

The Milky Way as seen from Siding Spring Observatory (NSW, Australia). This image was the very first astrophoto I took with my new camera, a CANON EOS 5D Mark III, last 7th September. I used a 24mm lens, F2.8, with 30 seconds exposure.
Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez.

A zoom-in of the previous image shows the location in the sky of the constellations of Scorpius (Right) and Ara (left). Star mu Arae is identified by a yellow open circle.
Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez.

Another zoom-in of the image now only shows the details of the Ara constellation and mu Arae surroundings. The brightest stars in Ara and in the tail of Scorpius are also identified.
Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez.

Today, September 29th, is the (assumed) anniversary of the birth of Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Using this as a driver, the SEA has released the campaign ¿Te atreves a regalarle una estrella a Cervantes? (Why don’t you give a star to Cervantes?), that aims to promote the #YoEstrellaCervantes proposal for star mu Arae. We are asking citizens around the world (and not only Spanish-speakers, but of course mainly orientated to them, as the majority it is in Spanish) to help us to get the hashtag #YoEstrellaCervantes trending topic in social media today. Besides casting your vote, please share #YoEstrellaCervantes in your social network to reach more people.

Logo of the #YoEstrellaCervantes initiative.
Credit: Almudena M. Castro.

The book “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha” (“El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha”), or just Don Quixote (“Don Quijote” in Spanish) was published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. Hence 2015 marks the 400th Anniversary of Don Quixote, which has been considered one of the most influential works of literature, one of the best works of fiction ever written, a classic of the Western literature, and to be the first modern European novel. The initiative #YoEstrellaCervantes is a beautiful project that puts together Science and Art (Literature) and a tribute to Don Miguel de Cervantes and his work. If Shakespeare already has his works in the heavens (the majority of the Moons of Uranus are named after characters from the works of William Shakespeare), why hasn’t Cervantes?


Letter to Aylan from an Astrophysicist and Science Communicator

Post originally written in Spanish in my blog El Lobo Rayado, with the title Carta a Aylan de un astrofísico divulgador.

Hi Aylan,

I’ve spent the last two days just thinking about you, your brother and your parents. It is hard to me to be concentrated on other things, I’m much more sensitive than usual, I cannot sleep well and I feel bad and also responsible for your destiny as a part of that huge silent mass of people who happily live in what some call the first world. Our everyday concerns are a trifle compared with those of your family and countrymen. We continuously complain if our football team does not win, if the price of the movie tickets (or the petrol, gas or electricity, just name it) raises, if the internet connection is too slow to read our favorite websites or, in my case, if the bad weather does not allow me to use the telescope or a committee of wise academics has not valued my science project for a new grant. But all these problems are just a very tiny thing when compared with a sea even bigger than the Mediterranean.

Do you know I have a son who is almost your same age? Sometimes he is a bit stubborn but he is still learning everything. I do not want to impose him any religion or any class separation by culture, race or sex. I just want him to know that all humans beings, whether Christians, Arabs, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Australian Aborigines, blacks, gays, straights, or any mix of any of these, have the same rights and responsibilities. They all have to respect and be respected for who and what they are. Unfortunately I think there are still few people on Earth who think like me. Otherwise I would not understand what is going on in this crazy world, very globalized for some things, but so separated for the things that really matter.

My son Luke speaks little yet, but he understands and is able to communicate in two different languages. I wish he will learn more languages ​​throughout his life. I consider that learning languages ​​and traveling open your mind and help a lot to understand our world. You’ve also traveled, but you have been forced to do so by the cruel circumstances that are destroying your native country. As in so many other wars, it is the lack of respect for those who do not have their same god or school of thought what is devastating your society. I hope that Luke also travels around the world when he grows up, but not as a “tourist” taking photos of everything he sees and does to post them into Facebook to show friends and (ex)girlfriends how cool he is, but to acquire a better understanding of our species and our planet. Thanks to his Spanish-English bilingualism he will be able to communicate with billions of people, with whom he will share experiences, ideas and adventures. All of this, I hope, will induce in him a better comprehension and appreciation of this small, pale blue dot in which we all live in.

There are many other worlds out there, Aylan, and it is very probable that during our generation we will be able to point a specific star in the night knowing that it has extraterrestrial life on it. I wish I could show you the sky and how to recognize the brightest stars, the constellations and the planets of our Solar System. You do not need a telescope or even binoculars to enjoy a starry sky. All countries on Earth are hung under the same sky, but not all stars can be seen at all points of the globe. The sky does not have any borders as it happens to the countries of the Earth (except the constellations, which were also artificially created by us), so you can freely jump from one star to another only guided by your imagination. Imagination can take you very far, if you have the ability and opportunity to use it.

Unfortunately I will never meet you, Aylan, or be with you and your brother, Galip, in an astronomical observation, I will never listen to your questions and ideas, and I will never share with you these scientists and philosophical thoughts. However, and besides teaching my son Luke, I still hope to show the majesty and beauty of the Nature to more children like you, whether they are in Spain, Australia or elsewhere I’m asked to go. I hope I’ll help them to understand how tiny and fragile our planet is and how beautiful is that the matter of the Cosmos has been recycled in a so complex way that it is able to think about their own origins.

Life, Aylan, is what must be protected first and before anything else. Life is the most precious thing that exists throughout the entire Universe, but our society still has to learn this. Perhaps through Science, and in particular Astronomy, I can help a little to move all those pebbles of sand that are needed to build a mountain. Just because of all of this all the worries and concerns I have recently had about the usefulness of my popular science and outreach activities and how to reach more people are even more important that what I originally thought. On the education and the teaching of the mutual respect to people who are not exactly like you are the keys to the success, and ultimately the survival, of the intelligent species that dominates the third planet orbiting around a star named Sun.

Your life, Aylan, and the life of your brother is what should have been protected first. As the lives of all the children in the world who, both innocent and curious by nature, embark on the adventure of life. I feel I’m also guilty of your tragedy, perhaps indirectly, but guilty because of my silence and inaction.

I have also failed, Aylan. And I’ll never forgive me.

Dr. Ángel R. López-Sánchez
Astrophysicist and Science Communicator
Friday, 4th September, 2015.

NOTE: It had never impacted me so hard a photography or a story as the final destiny of Aylan. Between the impotence, the complicity of belonging to the “society that allows these things happen”, and my sustained tears for the last couple of days, I could not help myself and write these notes, which are more for me than for my followers (that is why I originally wrote this in Spanish first, but I have felt the need of translating it into English too). Certainly, the fact of having a child with similar age to Aylan’s means that all of this is effecting me more deeply than usual. Putting me in the skin of Aylan’s father, who has not only lost his two small sons but also his wife, destroys my soul. Every few minutes I have to erase from my mind the photos at the beach and put in their place that picture in which Aylan and his older brother (who also died in this tragedy) are laughing together on a couch next to a stuffed animal. Therefore I must act accordingly to try that something like this will never happen again. Unfortunately, behind this terrible catastrophe there are also thousands, millions of other cases that are not made public and do not get the attention of the media. What a feeling of emptiness and selfishness! Is this what awaits us in the coming years? What a simple astrophysicist and science communicator could do about it? Apart from donations and sending letters to insensitive politicians, like many other citizens do, the only action I see, as I said in my letter, is to help in the education of the young people, who will be the citizen and leaders of our next generation. I will be here to do so.