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Distant celestial objects now ‘Kererū’ and ‘Karaka’

A little bit of kiwi can now be found in the far reaches of space as a celestial naming competition sees a distant ‘exoplanet’ and its host star named “Kererū” and “Karaka” respectively.

The new names were chosen as part of the International Astronomy Union (IAU) NameExoWorlds competition involving more than 100 countries asking members of the public to name exoplanet-star systems.

Around 150 New Zealand entries were received and winners chosen by an independent panel while the campaign itself run by the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand and the University of Auckland’s Te Pūnaha Ātea – Auckland Space Institute.

Hugh Williams, a teacher from Lower Hutt, came up with both names but is joint winner with Jamie Andersen of Nelson who also submitted karaka as the name of the orange dwarf star.

New Zealand was assigned exoplanet HD137388b and its orange dwarf star HD137388. Exoplanet-star systems are so-called because they are extra-solar or outside our solar system.

While we can see the distant stars through a telescope because of their brightness, the only way we know the exoplanet is there is because the star’s brightness is affected as the planet transits across the star during orbit. The IAU assigned each country an exoplanet-star system that can be detected by telescope from that country.

The orange brightness of host star Karaka means its new name is particularly apt because this endemic New Zealand plant produces orange fleshy fruit. Exoplanet HD 137388b, now Kererū, is named after New Zealand’s native wood pigeon which feeds on karaka.

“The kererū flying around the karaka is a great way of describing the nature of the way a planet orbiting its host star,” says Dr Nick Rattenbury from the University of Auckland and Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Ātea who helped lead the naming campaign.

The competition had attracted a lot of enthusiasm, he says.
“Planets and their host stars are usually labelled with a descriptive but somewhat dull name so this competition was a great chance to allow each IAU member nations to ask the public to think up a name that drew not just on their imagination but also cultural heritage.”

Submitters were asked to submit their names along with a rationale for their selection and names in te reo Māori were encouraged.

But while it’s nice to have a little bit of te reo in the farthest reaches of space, we won’t be visiting any time soon. Kereru is 128 light years away, so even travelling in our fastest spacecraft, it would take 2 million years to get there.

Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand’s education group leader Carolle Varughese was delighted with the number of people who took part in the naming competition and congratulated the winners.

“People don’t get an opportunity like this very often so it’s great to see so many people getting involved and to remind everyone there is a whole other world outside of what they know.”


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