NASA is changing some ‘insensitive’ space terminology – here’s why

NASA is changing some ‘insensitive’ space terminology - here’s why
(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

NASA has announced it will be reviewing and changing a number of unofficial but potentially culturally insensitive nicknames of cosmic objects.

Distant objects like planets, galaxies and nebulae are usually given official names, made up of letters and numbers. For the non-astronomical public, unofficial nicknames are often used for reference.

In a statement, NASA said that as the scientific 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.”

Commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion

The space agency announced that it is examining its use of unofficial terminology for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I support our ongoing reevaluation of the names by which we refer to astronomical objects,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters, Washington.

“Our goal is that all names are aligned with our values of diversity and inclusion, and we’ll proactively work with the scientific community to help ensure that.

“Science is for everyone, and every facet of our work needs to reflect that value.”

Which names will be changed?

NASA gave several examples of objects which will no longer be referred to by their objectionable nicknames.

NGC 2392, a glowing remains of a Sun-like star that is blowing off its outer layers at the end of its life, will no longer be referred to as the ‘Eskimo Nebula’.

Likewise, NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 – a pair of spiral galaxies found in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster – will no longer be referred to as the ‘Siamese Twins Galaxy’.

Moving forward, NASA will use only the official, International Astronomical Union designations in cases where nicknames are inappropriate.

Are these nicknames really harmful?

These cosmic nicknames are useful in making astronomy more approachable and public-friendly. More often than not, they simply reflect an object’s appearance.

For example, Barnard 33’s nickname of ‘the Horsehead Nebula’ invokes its appearance.

But others, often labelling objects discovered during less educated times, can include offensive and outdated terminology.

“These nicknames and terms may have historical or cultural connotations that are objectionable or unwelcoming, and NASA is strongly committed to addressing them,” said Stephen T Shih, Associate Administrator for Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA Headquarters.

“Science depends on diverse contributions, and benefits everyone, so this means we must make it inclusive.”

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