Picture was clear, but black hole’s name a little fuzzy

The newly pictured supermassive black hole is a beast with no name, at least not an official one.

And what happens next could be cosmically confusing.

The team of astronomers who created the image of the black hole called it M87 (asterisk) with "asterisk" being silent.

A language professor has given it a name from a Hawaiian chant — Powehi — meaning “the adorned fathomless dark creation.”

And the international group in charge of handing out astronomical names? It has never named a black hole.

The International Astronomical Union usually takes care of names, but only for stuff inside our solar system and stars outside it.

It doesn’t have a committee set up to handle other objects, like black holes, galaxies or nebulas.

THE GIFT OF A NAME

When it comes to the black hole we saw this week , University of Hawaii-Hilo Hawaiian professor Larry Kimura stepped up even before the photo was unveiled.

Powehi (pronounced poh-veh-hee) is the black hole’s Hawaiian name, not its official name, explained Jessica Dempsey, who helped capture the black hole image as deputy director of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige proclaimed April 10 as Powehi day, she said.

“This isn’t astronomers naming this,” she said. “This is coming from a cultural expert and language expert. This is him coming to the table and giving us a gift of this name. It’s a gift from Hawaiian culture and history, not the other way around.”

MORE NAMES COMING

The same day the photograph of the black hole was unveiled, the IAU asked the public to choose between three names for an object astronomers call 2007 OR10.

It’s an icy planetesimal that circles the sun but gets 100 times further from our star than Earth does.

The three proposed names are Gonggong, a Chinese water god with red hair and a serpent tail; Holle, a European winter goddess of fertility; and Vili, a Nordic deity and brother of Odin.

The IAU is trying to bring in more languages and cultures into the naming game, Pasachoff and Fienberg said.

And soon the IAU will ask the public to help name 100 planets outside our solar system.

As astronomers gaze further into the cosmos, Pasachoff said, “we will need more names.”

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