This photo of the exoplanet Awohali, formerly known as GJ 436 b, shows its comet-like tail, made up of hydrogen being stripped off of the planet by its partner star, which is now named Noquisi. (Photo: NASA, ESA, STScI and G. Bacon)
In a contest to name the first exoplanets to be investigated by the James Webb Space Telescope, it was apt for a team collaborating with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to choose a name meaning eagle, the school’s mascot, or “he who flies the highest.” The new name, however, holds many layers of meaning.
The product of a Prescott, Arizona-based team — comprised of representatives from Embry-Riddle’s Prescott Campus, the Museum of Indigenous People, the Northern Arizona Astronomical Consortium and members of the local community — the name was one of 20 selected in a competition organized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) early this month. The contest attracted 603 entries from 91 countries. The Prescott team was the only winner from the United States.
“I’m amazed that we ended up winning,” said Eric Edelman, director of Embry-Riddle’s Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium, who said he was approached last fall about participating in the effort by Adam England, creator of a blog called The Backyard Astronomer.
Intrigued by the idea, Edelman reached out to involve Embry-Riddle’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Contest organizers encouraged the competing teams to propose names from indigenous languages to “recognize the connections between the sky and our diverse cultures,” which led England to contact Prescott’s Museum of Indigenous People. Two men there, museum executive director Manuel Lucero, who represents the Cherokee people, and museum trustee Joshua Ballze, of the Hia-Ced O’odham Nation, joined the project.
Lucero provided a story about the eagle, Awohali, or “he who flies the highest,” that fit with the history and appearance of an exoplanet that was until then known only as GJ 436 b.
As the story goes, a warrior had a prayer for his people that he wanted to deliver to the Great Spirit. He climbed a mountain as high as he could and came across Yona the Bear, who asked him what he was doing there. The warrior explained that he wanted to deliver the prayer to the Great Spirit, and Yona said he would help him. When Yona reached the top of the mountain, he saw Awohali the Eagle nested in a tree. Yona explained his mission, and Awohali offered to deliver the prayer, flying all the way to the sun. When Awohali explained why he was there, the sun said he could speak with the Great Spirit and deliver the prayer but that Awohali should first give the sun one of his tail feathers, which the sun took and kissed, leaving a black mark on the tip like on the tail feathers of a golden eagle. The sun then told Awohali to give the feather to the people so they would know they had a connection to the Great Spirit.
As it happens, the exoplanet named by the Prescott team has its own sort of distinctive tail feather, a trailing swoosh of cloudiness created by hydrogen being stripped from the planet because of the intense radiation and/or gravity of its partner star, to which the team also gave a new name, Noquisi, meaning star, in Cherokee.
“There’s this beautiful symmetry of the Cherokee story and the science of the exoplanet,” said Edelman, who added that the connection to the Embry-Riddle eagle was purely coincidental. “But it added another layer of excitement to the story the team decided on.”
In a video about the project, which was produced by local videographer Edward Tucker, Lucero called the project a “great opportunity” for native people to be “recognized through our stories.” Although stars and planets are generally named after Greco-Roman gods, Native American mythology is represented through these celestial bodies. With a degree in American Indian Studies, Lucero said the connection between Cherokee mythology and the science of the exoplanet created a two-way exchange.
“I’ve learned a lot more about space than I ever thought I would,” he said.
The proposal by Ballze, which translated to “hunter” and applied to a different exoplanet, was not selected.
IAU’s NameExoWorlds 2022 contest stipulated that each competing team organize an astronomy outreach event for the public to attend, and contest organizers estimated that almost 12 million people participated worldwide.
In Prescott, a “star party” held last October promoted November events at Embry-Riddle’s planetarium that drew more than 300 people. Edelman organized the shows on the planetarium dome.
Immediately after the final show, Dr. Pragati Pradhan, assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy, presented the basics of exoplanet formation, “how gas and dust twirl around young stars, get cozy, collide and form these cool entities called planetesimals. These little rebels then grow into solid cores and capture gas, turning into full-fledged exoplanets,” Pradhan said in an interview for this article. “It’s like interstellar parenting on a grand scale!”
Pradhan said the exoplanet-naming project “connected three things very close to my heart: science, story and the community.”
Becca Spejcher, a senior majoring in Astronomy with a minor in Mathematics, introduced the audience at the planetarium event to the exoplanet to be named Awohali, pointing out that it is 33 lightyears from Earth and orbits a red dwarf star.
“The most exciting fact about Awohali is the one that inspired the name: its comet-like tail that is more massive than the host star itself,” Spejcher said.
Students from local elementary, middle and high schools participated in the project and appeared in the video, including Lucero’s seventh-grade son, Wyatt, whose middle name is Awohali.
Spejcher said the interactions and experience that resulted from the Prescott team’s work were invaluable.
“Getting to meet all of the amazing people on the team, especially Manuel Lucero, who told us the beautiful story that led to naming the system, was one of the big highlights of this whole thing,” she said, adding that “outreach is one of the most important things a scientist can do, so getting to work on my presentation skills and getting to share our passion for astronomy with the Prescott community was wonderful.”
In addition, Spejcher had a very personal and perhaps life-changing takeaway.
“I have wanted to work on planets and exoplanets since I was little, and this solidified that,” she said. “Getting to do my own personal research on the system we picked just fueled the fire.”