Our Views: Nebula gets new name

To encourage greater interest in outer space, scientists need to do a better job in naming newly discovered heavenly bodies, humorist Joe Queenan recently told readers of his column in The Wall Street Journal.

“Whenever scientists discover a new planet, they invariably name it HD23127 b or eps Err b or TrES-2,” Queenan complained. “And then they wonder why nobody cares. They wonder why nobody runs out to celebrate the way they did when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon back in 1969.”

We agree with Queenan that nomenclature can be pretty prosaic among astronomers these days. That’s why we were heartened by the news that officials with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory have rechristened a nebula as The Manatee Nebula.

The reason, says scientists, is that the cosmic gas cloud has an amazing resemblance to the manatee, a whimsical creature best known for its presence in coastal Florida.

The cloud is the remnant of a star that exploded in the constellation Aquila, about 18,000 light years away, and is impossible to spot with a common telescope. A radio telescope like the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array that can detect the low-energy radio wave light radiated by the nebula’s gases. The nebula took more than 10,000 years to assume its manatee-like shape.

Manatees can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds and propel themselves through the water with flippers and a broad tail.

Naming fixtures of the sky after animals, household objects or mythical characters is an ancient tradition. That’s how we’ve come to know The Big Dipper and Orion the Hunter among the night constellations.

The Manatee Nebula seems a worthy addition to the fold. The name sounds better, after all, than N-106 l.