Earth Has 7 Weird Quasi-Moons — and You Could Name One of Them

The looping orbit of 2004 GU9 around Earth. | Credit: Data source: HORIZONS System, JPL, NASA, created by wiki user:Phoenix7777

Usually, things in space are given two names. One is formal and the other is fun. That makes sense. Researchers need precise nomenclature to ensure that their exoplanet catalogs and black hole references are consistent, communicable, and clear — but as conscious beings, they also need to cultivate good vibes. I mean, a galaxy cluster called “ACT-CL J0102-4915” is literally nicknamed El Gordowhich translates to “The Fat One”, due to its weight; a magnificent ancient empire registered as “CEERS2_5429” is also known as Maisie’s Milky Way.

Maisie is the name of the young daughter of the discoverer. He found the galaxy on her ninth birthday.

The list goes on. Tons of cosmic objects have this business-first, party-last duality — but, importantly, not all of them. That’s where you come in. The International Astronomical Union, which oversees the naming procedures for celestial bodies and phenomena, is inviting the public to submit name ideas for one of Earth’s quasi-moons. Right now, the object is called 2004 GU9, or asteroid 164207 — but it’s called a “moon” because it’s locked to our planet’s gravitational tides, just like Our Moon™️. Still, 2004 GU9 is a “quasi” satellite because its orbit is also determined by other forces, making it unstable. In fact, this strange object will not always be around our corner of the solar system. After the year 2600 or thereabouts, the expects him to fly away.

The contest is being held in partnership with the podcast Radiolab, hosted by Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller. The reason for this is that Nasser recently managed to name its own quasi-moon. Accidentally.

Related: Zoozve — the strange ‘moon’ of Venus that got its name by accident

Just over a year agoNasser was tucking his son into bed, facing the wall, when he noticed something strange on a poster about the solar system that he had hung there a while ago. Apparently, Venus had a moon called “Zoozve.” Sounded a little weird, but not weird enough to make him doubt everything. Later, he did a quick Google search on Zoozve out of curiosity, because, well, isn’t Venus notoriously moonless? “Venus has no moons,” the Internet confirmed. That’s when Nasser started doubting everything.

Long story short, after an impressive detective story, Nasser, with the help of Liz Landau, a senior communications specialist at NASA headquarters in Washington. What he saw on the poster was one of Venus’ quasi-mane, and it was called 2002 VE. The handwriting was just wonky. But the story gets better.

After realizing this, Nasser decided to contact the International Astronomical Union to ask if he and his Radiolab crew could officially name the quasi-moon Zoozve. Because, well, 2002 VE didn’t have a “nice” name yet.

It worked; Zoozve is now anchored in astronomy history.

“Now it’s your turn,” Nasser says over Zoom, hopefully meaning “you” in the collective sense. (The best I’ve come up with doesn’t even deserve to be printed online permanently.)

“This time“It’s actually one of the planets on Earth,” he added, “so it’s even closer to home; it’s one of ours.”

Three of SoilThe seven semi-neighbors have enough scientific substance to be considered “official” quasi-moons, Nasser said. Of those three, “we picked the weirdest one,” he said. “We picked the one that had a shape that made us go, ‘Whoa.'” And as for the object itself? It’s a grayish rock that’s probably jagged on the surface, probably shaped like an uneven blob and is about the size of the Eiffel Tower.

A mythological resurrection

There is one small caveat to this naming contest. Nasser owes his success in naming the moon partly to his infectiously friendly personality and partly to luck. “Zoozve” is not technically an acceptable name under the IAU’s relatively recent new standards.

Instead, the IAU wants room wonders named after equally majestic figures. It wants mythological names. Zoozve, Nasser believes, only made the cut because the IAU seemed enamored with the (in the organization’s words) “cuteness” of its origin story. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you look at it—it’s likely the IAU will be stricter with the new quasi-lunar name. That won’t stop Nasser from dreaming, though. And since he and several other Radiolab staffers will be on the review committee, there may be room for a “wild card,” he suggested.

“If there are names that are a little bit out there and not mythological, we try to pitch them,” Nasser said. “We’re more on the, sort of, playful side of, ‘Maybe it should be Mooney McMoonface!’ I think they’re more on the side of, ‘This is not some silly, whimsical joke. This is going to stay there forever.'”

For every Boat-like McBoatface the boat, Roof-over the lunar rover and naughty boy the rocket, there is a Camels the asteroid, Ceres the dwarf planet and Andromeda the galaxy.

Nasser also sees the value of mythological names, and even mentions that the team hopes to bring in astronomers and mythology experts to weigh in. “If there’s something from your culture, no matter where you’re from, no matter what corner of the world you’re from,” he said, “you have a chance to put something from your culture in the sky, and that’s so beautiful.”

“Something that has a kind of mischievous and unpredictable spirit, maybe,” he suggested, as that would be a nod to the instability of quasi-moons in general. “What initially attracted me to quasi-moons was how they make shapes in space that I didn’t think were possible.”

A full list of guidelines can be found herebut there are two important aspects that Nasser wants to emphasize. Firstly, anyone can enter, regardless of age. Parents can enter on behalf of children who are not over the age limit, and they can also submit an entry for themselves. Age really is just a number when it comes to the cosmic. Eventually, the names are narrowed down to 10 finalists, and the committee goes from there.

Second, the question you ultimately want to ask yourself, Nasser said, is, “What is that name that only you can think of, and that no one else would ever think of?

“Send us that name.”

We’re just playing the game of life

Probably one of the most common examples of naming space objects is the show “Name a Star,” which I’m sure has been used as a plot point in many a dramatic soap opera. Just search the phrase “name star” and a myriad of options will appear. I can see both sides of the value of such an activity — it can feel a little pointless to name an object that lives among infinity, an object you’ll never experience up close. However, it can feel profound to name a corner of the universe, special because of the infinity of the universe.

But Nasser actually has a different view on the matter, one that falls somewhere in between: being responsible for the name of the quasi-moon of Venus feels like playing the game of life.

Let me paint a picture.

Imagine you’re one of those miniature characters jumping into a Life car. You roll the dice. You move a few spaces. Oh, look, you get to pick up a Life Tile. What did Life bring you this time? “It’s like ‘recording a hit single!’” Nasser explained, “or ‘winning the Nobel Prize!’”

Winning this Earth-moon-naming contest would be like getting one of those Life Tiles — not necessarily life-changing, since you still have to finish the game and collect many more tiles, but not necessarily pointless, since you get to keep your tiles until the end of the game. It’s always fun to look back on those tiles after the game is over.

Related Stories:

— Earth’s strange ‘quasi-moon’, Kamo’oalewa, is a fragment blasted out of a large lunar crater

— Earth has a new ‘quasi-moon’ after discovery of newly discovered asteroid 2023 FW13

— Moon rocks blasted off the lunar surface could become Earth-grazers

“Having a hand in naming something that will outlive me — that’s really something special,” Nasser said. “It just helps me kind of zoom out of my life in a way that’s so satisfying, like when things in my life are frustrating. It’s a potato-shaped rock, but somehow I feel this relationship to it.”

Of course, it also contributes greatly to the ‘cuteness’ of your life, as the IAU will no doubt attest.

“There’s a former professor of mine who I’m still close to,” Nasser said. “She named one of her goats Zoozve.”

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