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article imageNASA opts to change 'inappropriate' nicknames of celestial bodies

By Karen Graham     Aug 9, 2020 in Science
NASA has signaled it is joining the social justice movement by changing unofficial and potentially contentious names used by the scientific community for distant cosmic objects and systems such as planets, galaxies and nebulae.
In a statement last week, NASA said that "as the science community works to identify and address systemic discrimination and inequality in all aspects of the field, it has become clear that certain cosmic nicknames are not only insensitive, but can be actively harmful.”
NASA is joining the ever-growing list of organizations and companies around the world in reexamining its naming system, removing names that are "insensitive" and "harmful" from its vocabulary. This renaming trend followed worldwide protests against racism and police brutality after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
A demonstrator holds up a poster with a rendition of George Floyd on May 30 in Denver
A demonstrator holds up a poster with a rendition of George Floyd on May 30 in Denver
Jason Connolly, AFP/File
The global protests, in-synch with the Black Lives Matter movement helped to bring systemic racism and racial disperites to the world's attention. In the U.S. and other countries, statues of racist figures have been torn down, buildings renamed and iconic food products renamed.
In this vein, the "Eskimo Nebula," NGC 2392, and the "Siamese Twins Galaxy," a pair of galaxies designated as NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, are just two examples of nicknames that will be retired, the space agency announced this week, reports CBS News. "Often seemingly innocuous nicknames can be harmful and detract from the science," NASA said.
In its first glimpse of the heavens following the successful December 1999 servicing mission, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captured a majestic view of a planetary nebula, the glowing remains of a dying, Sun-like star. This stellar relic, the Eskimo Nebula, NGC 2392, was first spied by William Herschel in 1787.
NGC 2392
NGC 2392
NASA/Hubble Site
The planetary nebula began forming about 10,000 years ago, when the dying star began flinging material into space. The nebula is composed of two elliptically shaped lobes of matter streaming above and below the dying star. In this photo, one bubble lies in front of the other, obscuring part of the second lobe.
NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 (nicknamed the Siamese Twins or the Butterfly Galaxies) are a set of unbarred spiral galaxies about 60 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo. They are part of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies.
The two galaxies are in the process of colliding and merging with each other, as studies of their distributions of neutral and molecular hydrogen show, with the highest star-formation activity in the part where they overlap. However, the system is still in an early phase of interaction.
NGC 4567 and 4568  nicknamed the Siamese Twins because they appear to be connected.
NGC 4567 and 4568, nicknamed the Siamese Twins because they appear to be connected.
NASA/Judy Schmidt
“These nicknames and terms may have historical or culture connotations that are objectionable or unwelcoming, and Nasa is strongly committed to addressing them,” said Stephen Shih, associate administrator for diversity and equal opportunity at Nasa. “Science depends on diverse contributions, and benefits everyone, so this means we must make it inclusive.”
As for future namings, NASA plans to use the official, International Astronomical Union designations in cases where nicknames are inappropriate. This means that cosmic objects such as Barnard 33, nicknamed “the Horsehead Nebula,” would retain their names, according to The Guardian.
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