Credit & Copyright: Uwingu (Source)

Uwingu is an organization that is quickly gaining recognition and popularity in the public eye. Named after the Swahili word for "sky" (and, pronounced oo-wing-oo), the organization's goal is simple: raise money to fund scientific research and grants, while engaging the public and raising interest in astronomy. Recently, Uwingu has been in the media with an effort to name Martian craters. Uwingu offers a different approach to the naming process and the funding of scientific research and subsequently raised a lot of curiosity in our readership; so we decided to dig a little deeper to see what Uwingu was all about.


NASA's Budget History

The heart of Uwingu's operation, as well as the central issue that most people and organizations have with them, revolves around money. Uwingu makes money from the nomination and voting on names for celestial objects and features as well as donations from willing supporters. With the bleak economic situation, funding for scientific research and initiatives is being cut left and right (especially in areas involving space research, as seen by the NASA sequester in August of 2012). Uwingu's mission is simply to give researchers another place to turn to for funding.

Dr. Alan Stern, founder of Uwingu (though, more well known as the principle investigator on the New Horizons mission) told us, "We wanted to monetize space to make money to fund grants and research. At first, we thought about becoming a non-profit, similar to the National Space Society or the Planetary Society (which are great organizations), but the world didn't need another non-profit. Uwingu is a unique project that attempts to tap into the public's energy and enthusiasm while using a crowd-funding type approach to generating income."

Uwingu has suffered some heavy criticism for being a scam and has been likened to other less-desirable organizations seeking to take advantage of the public's interest in space, and be used for personal gain instead of tapping it as a valuable resource to further science. Of the proceeds Uwingu generates, they have pledged to donate 50% of it for funding research and grants, something they already have a history of doing, donating about $50,000 to fund scientific endeavors, even though the organization is less than a year old.


Currently, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is the "internationally recognized authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and surface features on them," and it currently represents 93 nations and contains about 11,000 professional astronomers in their ranks (Dr. Stern is also a member of the IAU). The IAU and Uwingu have been involved in a PR battle ever since Uwingu first went online. The IAU has lodged three main complaints against organizations like Uwingu (though, without naming Uwingu by name):

1) That organizations like Uwingu are scams (obviously, we addressed the money complaint above)

2) That such efforts would create "too many maps" or that the multiple names of objects would be confusing.

3) That such initiatives limit the 'free and equal access' to the sky.

As for the "too many names" complaint, it doesn't really hold water. Many of the objects in the sky have more than one name and most (dare I say, all) of the objects in the visible sky are known by multiple names. Using the Andromeda galaxy as an example, it is also officially known by Messier 31, M31, and NGC 224 with little-to-no confusion. The same general argument is used for the 'too many maps' perspective, where Uwingu simply offers another map or perspective based on its public voting process (Uwingu maintains the position that their maps represent a "people's choice" rather than any official position).

Dr. Stern was also very critical of the IAU's position that initiatives similar to Uwingu prohibited a 'free and equal access' to space. In a recent interview with From Quarks to Quasars, he stated "the IAU doesn't have a lot of public engagement, nor do they have a lot of authority in the public's eye," and continued to state "the IAU is very elitist and dissuades the public interest." In essence, Dr. Stern believes that the IAU is overstepping their authority: "they don't own the map of Mars and they created a map of Mars - just like Uwingu is doing."

Officially, the IAU has the persona of accepting name proposals from individuals or organizations; though, it isn't uncommon that the IAU will ignore the submission of proposed or popular names for objects. That practice, argues Dr. Stern, doesn't uphold the principles of free or equal access to space.


Because, in the end, that question is what this entire debate boils down to. The short answer is "no one" and "everyone." The Milky Way, as an example, is the name that everyone recognizes as the name of our galaxy. We get the name from the Romans and it was likely spread through their various conquests. The Milky Way is also not an officially sanctioned name by the IAU. The IAU didn't name the planets, society and governments did (though, the IAU has adopted many of the celestial names from antiquity names as 'official').

Dr. Stern argues that a name is a very personal thing. If you name something, you feel a greater attachment to it. It's the same for naming your pets, your favorite beer stern, or an object in the sky. Humans have been naming things since the written word (and probably much longer). Bringing that level of personalization to the cosmos is an important way to help people take interest in astronomy and space-science.


Uwingu has made a splash in the astronomical community, string up interest, curiosity, and concern. If you submit or vote on a name submission in the Uwingu database, will that vote even matter? Will that name be relegated to the figuratively dusty corner of some hard drive or will it actually get some use in the real world? Currently, the ultimate fate of the longevity of Uwingu's names is undecided. They have made some exciting progress and are beginning to gain some recognition from other organizations and projects (such as the Mars One project, who'll be taking Uwingu's Martian map to the Red Planet with them).

As time progresses, we'll see if Uwingu's naming effort gets more traction in the scientific and public communities.

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