Existing Planet Names Are Not Helpful

Naming planets is an endeavor that generally falls to astronomers or science fiction writers. Even the names for our own solar system’s planets strike me as childish tags, meant for places we never plan to visit. Half of you can your best Uranus joke here while the rest of you contemplate that the planet Mercury is in fact not composed of the chemical element mercury.

In real life, we’re starting to find planets outside the solar system and we’re kind of falling into a naming system for them. It’s not very inspired. The official rules, as it were, are governed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and covers not just planets, but features on planets, like craters, mountains, plains, and shopping malls. They have a cool source list for names and list of descriptor terms that explain why features on the moon are not called ‘hills,’ ‘ravines’, or ‘Matthew Looney‘s playground’.

Check out this list of named exo-planets so far. Can you imagine a billion people living on a place called ‘Gliese 667Cc’ or “TRAPPIST-1e?” Even worse, can you imagine selling real estate there? What we’ve done is simply toss a letter at the end of the lame star catalog name we’ve slapped on its sun.

Most Sci Fi Planet Names Are Bad, Too

And the other thing is I can’t stand most planet names in science fiction. In an interstellar community, the people from a planet are generally referred to according to the planet’s name (Martians are from Mars, etc.). Think about that for a second: if you lived on Buttcrack, would you want to be known as a Buttcrackian? No. Same goes for being a “Gliese 667Ccian.” Which means that in some cases the residents will rename and rebrand their planet so they are not known as Beta Boogerians. And will chaos result as every planet is named Haven? “The flight from Haven549 to Haven301, with a stop in Haven4578, will begin boarding passengers with disabilities and small children.”

Most science fiction uses planetary naming systems based on astrological naming conventions, Latin, Greek or Roman mythology, African or Asian terms to sound exotic, or something that simply sounds exotic to Western cultures. But let’s face it, between Star Wars, Star Trek and Pokemon, all the cutesy planet names are sort of played out. If you call a planet Mikeeta, it could be a Star Wars planet or a Level X Pokemon. Add the word ‘prime’ to it and it sounds like the capital of a star empire. Go peruse a list of science fiction planet names and tell me I’m wrong. Tell me that the planets from Spaceballs don’t almost sound legit.

Some science fiction does branch out. The Honor Harrington military sci-fi series by David Weber has planets with more livable names like:

  • Endicott
  • Sphinx
  • Medusa
  • Manticore
  • Grayson
  • Haven
  • Yeltsin
  • Zanzibar
  • Beowulf

The last three seem to be thrown in for grins, which is fine, but it does whittle away at the suspension of disbelief. You can see how this can be both inspired and cheesy at the same time.

Why do planet names matter?


For the space pirate series I drafted a while back, I have a lot of planets, spread across three different cultures, and therefore needing a lot of planet names that make sense. For a space opera series I have drafted, there are planets, cultures, and species that need careful naming as well. As you can imagine, in both stories, the characters tend to move about a lot to planets, space stations, and sometimes just a beacon deep in interstellar space.

Planet names are important in science fiction, like character names. They give color and depth to the world building. They represent the culture that chose them and should suggest something about the planet itself if we’re trying to be really good. Tatooine doesn’t canvey a desert world, does it?

You’re probably asking why is this so difficult? Just name one planet Alpha Ironic, and another Beta Varicose, and be done with it, right? The original series Star Trek writers probably drew Latin words out of a hat as they finished that week’s script, right? They expected cancellation to force them back to writing spec scripts for Car 54 or a Jack Lemmon rom-com.

I can’t. I just can’t, people.


Upping the Stakes: There Are Real World Consequences

Even a new planet name crafted along the usual lines sounds like a dozen we’ve already heard. Beta Carotene V, anyone? The thing I struggle with is whether these cliches are so ingrained that they are expected and cherished, or if it is time to try something new?

I think new is the way to go. Here’s why: whatever planetary naming system that humanity adopts when it starts doing flags and footprints on other worlds will most likely come out of science fiction. Because that’s what’s happened going all the way back to when the countdown to launch a rocket went from science fiction to science fact. While we won’t be needing a good system for a while, these things take a while to gain acceptance, you know? We need to approach this carefully. What we adopt in sci fi will one day probably get used to name actual human colonies on other planets. Humanity works in mysterious ways sometimes. That’s the best reason I can think of to explain the continued use of the QWERTY keyboard layout.

So what would you recommend as planetary naming schemes?

Naming Planets is Hard But Important
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