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Is Uwingu fishy? I really don't think so.

I've read/heard a lot of negative comments from astronomers regarding Uwingu. I suspect this is because they have bad associations for any concept involving money for naming rights of astronomical objects. There are a lot of shady sites out there that supposedly let the public buy names for stars, all for profit and with no scientific interest in mind. But I'd like to assure you, dear readers, that Uwingu is no such organization.

The Uwingu website makes their mission and methods abundantly clear. They are compiling a "baby name book" of unofficial designations for exoplanets that may become unofficial monickers, or even eventually official names if the IAU ever gets into the business of officially sanctioning exoplanet names. But nowhere on the site have I seen evidence that they are misleading the public in how all of this will actually work. Under "About us" they state:
Funding great science and science education doesn’t take a lot of money, but it requires someone to make the choice to fund science. 
At Uwingu, we are the men and women who’ve decided to turn our profits into understanding of our universe. 
We’ve designed software products that will help people relate better to the sky and to space. 
We will market these products globally and use the proceeds after expenses to create something we call “The Uwingu Fund” for space research and education. We hope sales on Uwingu’s products will raise millions—and perhaps even tens of millions—annually—for The Uwingu Fund.

Here's a list of projects funded by Uwingu so far. This all seems pretty clear, noble and aboveboard to me. Nothing shady there, especially since they have professional astronomers such as Geoff Marcy on their advisory board. They may actually have nefarious aims, but coming to this conclusion after reading what they explicitly state on their website starts edging pretty close to conspiracy-theory-land, IMHO.

On the other hand, the IAU issued a poorly-written press release that impugned efforts like Uwingu without conferring with the Commission 53 or with the public. The IAU claims to be a democratic organization, yet some faction within it acted unilaterally in issuing that press release. This is clear. I have no idea how people have jumped from that wrong to accusing Uwingu of wrongdoing. I am very confused on that point. I am not confused about the aims of Uwingu or the potential for it to do something positive in these times of decreased federal funding for science.

Here's an official response from Uwingu regarding the IAU hoopla. See also the article at here.

Uwingu affirms the IAU’s right to create naming systems for astronomers. But we know that the IAU has no purview — informal or official — to control popular naming of bodies in the sky or features on them, just as geographers have no purview to control people’s naming of features along hiking trails. People clearly enjoy connecting to the sky and having an input to common-use naming. We will continue to stand up for the public’s rights in this regard, and look forward to raising more grant funds for space researchers and educators this way.

We now take this opportunity to note to the public that, contrary to the IAU press release:
    • Informal names for astronomical objects are common (e.g., “The Milky Way”). And in fact, there is no such thing as a unified astronomical naming system, and there never has been. Claims to the contrary are simply incorrect, as an astronomical database search on a representative star, Polaris, reveals. This star is also known to astronomers and the public as the North Star, Alpha Ursae Minoris, HD 8890, HIP 11767, SAO 308, ADS 1477, FK5 907, and over a dozen more designations.
    • There are many instances where astronomers name things without going through the IAU’s internal process. There are many features on Mars, ranging from mountains to individual rocks, with names applied by Mars-mission scientists and never adopted by, or even considered by, the IAU. And Apollo astronauts did not seek IAU permission before naming features at their landing sites or from orbit.
    • Uwingu looks forward to continuing to help the general public to engage creatively in astronomy and to participate in the excitement of the exploration of the universe in which we all live.
In our Alpha Centauri People’s Choice naming contest, anyone can nominate a name to honor a friend, colleague, loved one, or to recognize a place name, an author, an artist, or a sports team, for example. The name getting the highest number of votes will be declared the public’s choice for Uwingu to use as the name for this mysterious new world. Never before has the public been asked to choose its favorite name for a planet.

Name nominations are $4.99; votes cost $0.99. Proceeds from naming and voting fuel new Uwingu grants to fund space education projects affected by sequestration cuts to NASA.

So when discussing this issue, please try to draw two clear boxes around two distinct issues: 1) The IAU either overstepped its bounds or issued a terribly-worded press release, or both. 2) Private funding through activities like Uwingu is good or bad. Conflating these two discussions doesn't help anyone.


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