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  • MPEC 2004-S73 : EDITORIAL NOTICE

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    M.P.E.C. 2004-S73                                Issued 2004 Sept. 28, 00:04 UT
    
         The Minor Planet Electronic Circulars contain information on unusual
             minor planets and routine data on comets.  They are published
       on behalf of Commission 20 of the International Astronomical Union by the
              Minor Planet Center, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory,
                              Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
    
                      Supported in part by the Brinson Foundation
                 Prepared using the Tamkin Foundation Computer Network
    
                                  MPC@CFA.HARVARD.EDU
              URL http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/iau/mpc.html  ISSN 1523-6714
    
                                   EDITORIAL NOTICE
    
                                   (from MPC 52733)
    
         Among the new names of minor planets published in this batch of Minor
    Planet Circulars is (90377) Sedna = 2003 VB12.  This naming has created
    some controversy, particularly in the community of amateur astronomers,
    because it was already publicized by the discoverers six months ago during a
    press conference at which they described their finding this exceptionally
    interesting object in the outer solar system.  At that time the object did
    not qualify for naming because it had not yet been numbered, something that
    did not happen until Aug. 30 (MPC 52567, 52620, MPO 64543).  Although the
    discoverers did state that the naming was not yet official, the point is that
    the guidelines for naming minor planets have indicated that names should not
    be publicized before they are announced in the Minor Planet Circulars.  This
    is because, even after an object has been numbered, the proposed names are
    judged by the IAU Committee on Small-Body Nomenclature, principally to ensure
    that they are in fact reasonably compatible with the guidelines, in particular
    that a name is neither "in bad taste" nor "too closely similar" to one
    already in use (in which case the CSBN might in fact unilaterally make a
    change in the name).
    
         We note that, as an indication of the widespread displeasure generated
    by the premature action of the 2003 VB12 discoverers, one amateur astronomer
    submitted an alternative proposal of the name "Sedna" for one of his own
    discoveries of a quite undistinguished main-belt object.  In the past, of
    course, there have been severe disagreements over the namings of several
    solar-system bodies found since the invention of the telescope, famous early
    cases involving the first four satellites of Jupiter, the two outermost
    gas-giant planets and the twelfth minor planet.  In these cases the reasons
    involved either real or perceived national sensibilities or accusations of
    plagiarism by the rightful discoverer against a rival astronomer who had made
    the proposal.  The Sedna case is different in that the complaint was entirely
    one of procedure: the proposal came from the discoverers, no objection has
    been voiced to the name itself, and no other name has been proposed for 2003
    VB12.  Indeed, the mythological name proposed is quite in line with the
    names of other unusual objects in the outer solar system and is to be commended
    for representing cultural diversity.  The fact is that, with observations
    already recognized by the discoverers at earlier oppositions, 2003 VB12 was
    almost ready for numbering when it was first reported to the Minor Planet
    Center, only five days before the press conference.  At that time the decision
    was made to forward the discoverers' name proposal to one or two members of
    the CSBN to verify that it did not seem to be unsuitable; the proposal was not
    sent to all the members, partly because of the request for secrecy surrounding
    the planned press conference, partly because there was was not enough time
    for a full-blown discussion by all 15 CSBN members.
    
         Since the Sedna problem was simply a procedural one, it is appropriate to
    examine whether a simple change could be made in the CSBN guidelines in order
    to handle similar cases that might arise in the future.  Accordingly, the CSBN
    has agreed that under some highly unusual circumstances it will in the future
    consider name proposals for minor planets before they are numbered.
    It is to be understood that this will occur only for objects of extraordinary
    interest.  One important requirement is that the orbit be sufficiently well
    established that the object concerned will not be lost (unless, perhaps, it
    is about to collide with another solar-system member...).  In a qualifying
    case, a name should be submitted to the CSBN at least one week before it needs
    to be disseminated (e.g., at a press conference), assuming that it is in fact
    approved, and neither CSBN members nor the discoverers should announce
    the name until that particular dissemination.
    
         This whole episode has made it rather clear that the CSBN has been
    delinquent in updating the formal guidelines for naming minor planets.
    A broader rewriting of all of the guidelines is in preparation and will be
    issued soon.
    
    Brian G. Marsden             (C) Copyright 2004 MPC           M.P.E.C. 2004-S73
    

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