Earth has 7 strange quasi-moons — and you could name one of them

 Looping purple lines.

The looping trajectory 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. It makes sense. Researchers need precise nomenclature to make sure 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 deemed “ACT-CL J0102-4915” is literally nicknamed El Gordo, which translates to “The Fat One,” because of its heft; a magnificently ancient realm recorded as “CEERS2_5429” also goes by Maisie’s Galaxy.

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

The list goes on. Tons of cosmic objects have this business-in-the-front-party-in-the-back duality — however, importantly, not all of them do. And that’s where you come in. The International Astronomical Union, which oversees naming procedures for celestial objects and phenomena, is inviting the public to submit name ideas for one of Earth’s quasi-moons. Right now, the object is named 2004 GU9, or asteroid 164207 — but it’s dubbed a “moon” because it’s tagged to our planet’s gravitational tides like Our Moon™️. Yet, 2004 GU9 is a “quasi” satellite because its orbit is dictated by other forces as well, making it unstable. In fact, this strange object won’t always hang around our corner of the solar system. After the year 2600 or so, it’s expected to zip away.

The contest is happening in partnership with the podcast Radiolab, hosted by Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller. The reason for this is that, not too long ago, Nasser managed to name a quasi-moon of his own. On accident.

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

A little over a year ago, Nasser was tucking his son into bed, facing the wall, when he noticed something peculiar on a solar system poster he’d hung there a while back. Apparently, Venus had a moon named “Zoozve.” Sounded kinda weird, but not weird enough to make him start questioning everything. Later, he ran a quick Google search about Zoozve out of curiosity because, well, isn’t Venus known to be moonless? “Venus has no moons,” the internet confirmed. Then, Nasser started questioning everything.

Long story short, after quite an impressive detective saga, Nasser figured out the truth 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-moons, and it was named 2002 VE. The handwriting was just wonky. But the story gets even better.

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

It worked; Zoozve is now cemented in astronomy history.

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

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

Three of Earth‘s seven semi-neighbors have enough scientific backing to be considered “official” quasi-moons, according to Nasser. Of those three, “we picked the weirdest one,” he said. “We picked the one that made a shape that we were like: ‘Whoa.'” As for the object itself? It’s a grayish rock that’s probably jagged on its surface, probably shaped like an uneven blob, and something like the size of the Eiffel Tower-ish.

A mythological resurgence

There’s a sliver of a caveat in this naming competition. You see, Nasser owes his moon-naming success in part to his contagiously affable personality, and in part to luck. “Zoozve,” technically, isn’t an acceptable name by the IAU’s relatively recent new standards.

Rather, the IAU wants space marvels to be named after equally majestic figures. It wants mythological names. Zoozve, Nasser believes, only made the cut because the IAU seemed to be charmed by 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-moon naming endeavor. This, however, won’t stop Nasser from dreaming. And, seeing as how he and several other Radiolab staff members are going to be part of the judging committee, perhaps there’s room for a “wild card,” he suggested.

“If there are names that are sort of extraordinary and are not mythological, we’ll try to pitch it to them,” Nasser said. “We’re more on the, kind of, playful side of, ‘Maybe it should be Mooney McMoonface!’ I think they’re more on the side of, ‘This is not a silly, whimsical gag. This is going to be up there for good.'”

For every Boaty McBoatface the boat, Roo-ver the moon rover and Naughty Boy the rocket, there is a Kamo’oalewa the asteroid, Ceres the dwarf planet and Andromeda the galaxy.

Nasser sees the merit in mythological names as well, even mentioning that the team hopes to bring in astronomers and mythology experts to weigh in. If there’s this thing from your culture, wherever you’re from, and from whatever corner of the world you’re from,” he said, “here’s a shot you have of naming something from your culture in the sky, and that’s so beautiful.

“Something that has that sort of spirit of kind of mischief and unpredictability, maybe,” he suggested, seeing as that’d be a nod to the instability of quasi-moons in general. “The thing that attracted me to quasi-moons in the first place was how they make shapes in space that I didn’t think were possible.”

A full-fledged list of guidelines can be found here, but there are two main aspects Nasser wishes to emphasize. Anyone can enter, first of all, no matter their age. Parents can enter on behalf of kids who aren’t above the age limit, and they can slide a submission in for themselves, too. Age is truly but a number when it comes to the cosmic. Eventually, the names will be narrowed down to 10 finalists, and the committee will go from there.

Second, ultimately, the question you may want to ask yourself, Nasser said, is: “What is that name that only you could think of — that nobody else would ever think about?

“Send us that name.”

We’re just playing the Game of Life

One of the most prevalent examples of space-object-naming is probably the “Name a Star” program that I’m sure many a dramatic soap opera has used as a plot point. Just look up the phrase “name star” and tons of options will pop up. I can see both sides to the value of such an activity — it may feel a little meaningless to name an object that lives among infinity, an object you’ll never get to experience up close. However, it may feel profound to “own” a corner of the universe, especially because of the universe’s infinite nature.

But Nasser actually has a different take, one that falls somewhere in between: Being responsible for the name of Venus’ quasi-moon simply feels like playing The Game of Life.

Allow me to paint a picture.

Imagine you are one of those miniature characters that snap into a Life car. You roll the dice. You move a couple of spaces. Oh, look, you get to pick up a Life Tile. What has Life brought you this time? “It’s like ‘recorded a hit single!” Nasser explained, “or ‘won the Nobel Prize!'”

If you won this Earth-moon-naming contest, it might be like getting one of those Life Tiles — not necessarily life-changing, as you’d still need to complete the game and collect far more tiles, but not necessarily pointless, as you’d get to keep your tiles until the end of the game. It’s always nice to look back on those tiles after the game is over, too.

Related Stories:

— Earth’s weird ‘quasi-moon’ Kamo’oalewa is a fragment blasted out of big moon crater

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

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

“Having had a hand in naming a thing that will outlive me — there’s something really special about that,” Nasser said. “It just helps me zoom out a little bit from my life in a way that is so satisfying, like when things are frustrating in my life. It’s a potato-shaped rock, but somehow I feel this relationship with it.”

It’s also, of course, a major contributor to the “cuteness” of your life, as the IAU may agree.

“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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