NASA drops ‘colonial’ nicknames for distant cosmic objects



A distant, exploding star and an orbiting pair of spiral galaxies will now be known by a string of numbers after NASA decided to review the use of “insensitive” and “actively harmful” astronomical nicknames.

The planetary nebula NGC 2392, located some 5,000 light years from Earth, has been called the “Eskimo Nebula” by scientists since it was first observed in 1787 by the astronomer William Herschel. A fuzzy outer disk of material, first scattered into space roughly 10,000 years ago, resembles the fur-lined hood of a parka.

“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,” reads a news release from NASA this week.

“‘Eskimo’ is widely viewed as a colonial term with a racist history, imposed on the Indigenous people of Arctic regions,” it continues. “Most official documents have moved away from its use.”

NASA’s announcement this week to review astronomical nicknames calls the decision an “initial step.”

“Our goal is that all names are aligned with our values of diversity and inclusion,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.

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

The twin galaxies NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 in the Virgo cluster will also now be referred to by their catalogue numbers. (Judy Schmidt [CC-BY-SA 2.0])

The change comes amid growing calls to review racist nicknames and mascots in professional sports and business. Edmonton’s CFL team dropped the epithet from their team name last month.

NGC 2392 is not the only astral body affected by the change. A pair of spiral galaxies in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster roughly 52 million light years away, previously nicknamed the “Siamese Twin Galaxies,” will also be referred to by their catalogue numbers, NGC 4567 and NGC 4568.

While the space agency committed to reviewing other nicknames in consultation with “diversity, inclusion and equity experts,” many will likely not be affected.

The release says “more approachable and public-friendly” nicknames, like the Horsehead Nebula (a.k.a. Barnard 33), are OK to stay.




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Johny Watshon

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