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NASA to drop harmful nicknames for cosmic objects

Donna Coutts, August 10, 2020 6:45PM Kids News

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Barnard 33, which many people call by its nickname, the Horsehead Nebula, a favourite to find and photograph for amateur and professional astronomers. The bright area at the top left edge is a young star still embedded in its nursery of gas and dust. While this nickname is unlikely to cause offence, NASA is reconsidering others in an effort to address social injustice. Picture: supplied media_cameraBarnard 33, which many people call by its nickname, the Horsehead Nebula, a favourite to find and photograph for amateur and professional astronomers. The bright area at the top left edge is a young star still embedded in its nursery of gas and dust. While this nickname is unlikely to cause offence, NASA is reconsidering others in an effort to address social injustice. Picture: supplied

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NASA will stop using the nicknames of some cosmic* objects such as planets and galaxies in an effort to address discrimination* and inequality.

Nicknames are often simpler and easier to remember than scientific names but the space agency acknowledges that some may cause harm.

As an initial step, NASA will no longer refer to planetary nebula* NGC 2392 as the “Eskimo Nebula”. NGC 2392 is the glowing remains of a Sun-like star that is blowing off its outer layers at the end of its life. From Earth, NGC 2392 reminds people of a person’s head surrounded by a fur-edged coat hood. “Eskimo” is widely viewed as a colonial term with a racist history, imposed on the indigenous people of Arctic regions. Most official documents have moved away from its use.

In 1787, astronomer William Herschel discovered the Eskimo Nebula. From the ground, NGC 2392 resembles a person's head surrounded by a parka hood. In 2000, the Hubble Space Telescope imaged the Eskimo Nebula (about 5000 light-years away). From space, the nebula displays gas clouds so complex they are not fully understood. The inner filaments visible above are being ejected by strong wind of particles from the central star. The outer disk contains unusual light-year long orange filaments - space media_cameraIn 1787, astronomer William Herschel discovered what is often called the Eskimo Nebula. From the ground, NGC 2392 resembles a person’s head surrounded by a parka hood.

In a statement on its website, NASA said: “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.

“NASA is examining its use of unofficial terminology* for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity*, equity*, and inclusion*.”

NASA will also no longer use the term “Siamese Twins Galaxy” to refer to NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, a pair of spiral galaxies found in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster.

In the future, NASA will use only the official, International Astronomical Union designations in cases where nicknames are inappropriate.

“I support our ongoing re-evaluation of the names by which we refer to astronomical objects,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters, Washington, US. “Our goal is that all names are aligned with our values of diversity and inclusion, and we’ll proactively* work with the scientific community to help ensure that. Science is for everyone, and every facet* of our work needs to reflect that value.”

Nicknames are often more approachable* and public-friendly than official names for cosmic objects, such as Barnard 33, whose nickname “the Horsehead Nebula” is a reminder of its appearance. But often seemingly harmless nicknames can be harmful and take away from the importance of the science.

NASA will work with diversity, inclusion, and equity experts in the astronomical and physical sciences to provide guidance and recommendations for other nicknames and terms for review.

“These nicknames and terms may have historical or culture connotations* that are objectionable* or unwelcoming, and NASA is strongly committed to addressing them,” said Stephen Shih, Associate Administrator for Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA Headquarters.

“Science depends on diverse contributions, and benefits everyone, so this means we must make it inclusive.”

media_cameraWashington Redskins merchandise is seen for sale at a sports store in the US. The NFL team announced July 23, 2020 that it is officially dropping its former name in response to criticism that it is racist. Until a new name is selected the team will simply go by Washington Football Team. Picture: AFP

GLOSSARY

  • cosmic: to do with space and the universe
  • discrimination: the unjust treatment of people because of such things as race, appearance, gender or age
  • nebula: a cloud of gas and dust in outer space
  • systemic: relating to a whole system, rather than just one part
  • terminology: the technical names in an area of knowledge
  • diversity: a range of different things and views
  • equity: being fair and equal
  • inclusion: act or state of including or being included
  • proactively: taking action to be in control of a situation rather than just letting something be solved by others
  • facet: a piece or part of something bigger
  • approachable: friendly and easy to talk to
  • connotations: an idea or a feeling in addition to a word’s actual meaning
  • objectionable: arousing distaste or bringing about objection

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. Why could the nickname “Eskimo Nebula” cause harm or offence?
  2. Where are NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 located?
  3. Who does Thomas Zurbuchen believe science is for?
  4. What is another name for Barnard 33?
  5. What organisation does Stephen Shih work with?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Positives and Negatives
Removing offensive nicknames makes a lot of sense to improve inclusion and equity but are there any negatives to banning nicknames?

Make a list of all the positive and negative fallouts from this decision

For example:

Positive – NASA will not offend, and therefore exclude, groups within our society.

Negative – Official names such as NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 can be harder to remember especially for people who don’t work in the field.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative thinking

2. Extension
Write a letter to all NASA employees from the HR (Human Resources) Department of NASA explaining the new regulations in referring to cosmic objects by their official names rather than nicknames. In your letter explain why they are implementing this new requirement and what they hope to achieve by doing so.

Use word processing software on a digital device to help you present your letter as an official letter – on paper with NASA letterhead (you can make up your own design for this). Format your letter appropriately, including the date and address of the sender. You may need to research what a formal letter includes. Use appropriate wording– you are writing to a large group of people many of whom you have not met personally. Make sure the way you word the letter politely and respectfully.

Time: allow 45 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative thinking, Personal and Social Capability, Intercultural Understanding, Technologies – Digital Technologies

VCOP ACTIVITY
Wondrous Wow Words
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many wow words or ambitious pieces of vocabulary that you can find in yellow. Discuss the meanings of these words and see if you can use them orally in another sentence.

HAVE YOUR SAY: How important is it to you that NASA stops using some nicknames?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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