Our solar system may be down one planet from the good old days, but astronomers have now found more than 860 worlds orbiting stars near us in the Milky Way Galaxy. More than 1,000 other candidates are likely planet detections that astronomers have not yet fully analyzed. That’s an astonishing feat, taking human knowledge of the vast realm of space beyond our local neighborhood that philosophers only could have dreamed about a generation ago.
Despite such incredible advances in astronomy, however, this field faces the same funding challenges as other sciences — beyond the National Science Foundation, the options fall off rapidly. Several months ago, a group of concerned scientists led by astronomer Alan Stern — among other things, project scientist for the New Horizons mission now en route to Pluto — stepped forward with a science funding initiative.
Stern and his collaborators founded Uwingu, a company dedicated to raising funds for scientific projects through crowdfunding scenarios. (Uwingu is the Swahili word for sky.) Establishing The Uwingu Fund, the group of scientists, educators, and businesspeople has donated to several projects already and has much bigger dreams of driving major projects in astronomy and planetary science.
This week, Uwingu will launch a three-week contest to name a specific planet for the first time — the Earth-sized planet orbiting one of the closest stars to the Sun, Alpha Centauri B. It is asking people to nominate names for this world and to get their friends and neighbors to vote for favorite names in order to actually name this planet. The proceeds of this naming contest will go to Uwingu to fund science and education. The voting will be key as it will result in a winner, and prizes will be awarded. For more information, see www.uwingu.com.
Thus far, Uwingu has contributed to astronomy outreach groups and projects like Astronomers Without Borders, the Galileo Teacher Training Program, and the Purdue Multiethnic Training Program, as well as to the Allen Telescope Array, a California radio dish instrument searching for signals from extraterrestrial life. In the future, the project may begin to collect enough funds to contribute to larger projects like ambitious, next-generation telescopes.
For now, you can nominate names for this very special planet neighboring us in the galaxy for only $4.99 per nomination. And you can vote on ranking the popularity of nominations for $0.99 per vote. Plus, you’ll help science along the way. That seems like a pretty sweet deal. We at Astronomy magazine will be supporting Uwingu in every way we can, and for the sake of science, I urge you to do the same.