Popular Science

Here's the weird alphabet soup that scientists use to name stuff in space

I is for interstellar.

MU69, soon to be known as: ??


What’s in a name? An asteroid by any other name would smell as singed—and would still be a rock orbiting the sun on some far-flung journey.

But we have to keep track of all those asteroids, comets, minor planets and planetary features somehow, and when trying to distinguish between various chunks of faint material out there in the solar system, having a specific name or reference point is a lot easier than saying “Hey, you remember that one asteroid from 1916? Whatever happened to that one?”

Having names to distinguish between individual comets and asteroids has become even more important as telescopes have improved, bringing into focus countless heavenly bodies that were previously beyond us. Naming took on an additional, sudden urgency just a few weeks ago, when became the first known visitor to our solar system from somewhere outside of our sun’s sphere of influence.

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