Many cosmic objects are known to scientists by unofficial nicknames, but not all of those nicknames are created equal. As it turns out, some are downright offensive.
NASA is working to change this by evaluating the nicknames currently in use and making changes to those that are insensitive.
There has been a general trend toward inclusivity and righting past wrongs lately, and NASA is getting in on the action.
In a statement posted on NASA.gov, the agency explained their reasoning for changing the way they refer to these cosmic features whose names are problematic:
"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."
Among those cited as problematic is NGC 2392, a planetary nebula whose nickname includes a term for the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic circle which many find offensive.
The associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters, Thomas Zurbuchen, talked a bit about why the change is important.
"I support our ongoing reevaluation of the names by which we refer to astronomical objects. 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."
NASA will be working with "diversity, inclusion, and equity experts in the astronomical and physical sciences" to review other nicknames and make changes where appropriate.
Unfortunately, much of the reaction to NASA's announcement on social media seems to be people insisting that the change is unnecessary and that NASA is just caving to "woke culture."
As we work to identify & address systemic discrimination & inequality in all aspects of the scientific community, w… https://t.co/W2WNYqFm8L— NASA (@NASA) 1596666361.0
It is probably safe to say that these people have never tried to learn about astronomy, only to encounter a celestial object whose name contains a racial slur used against their people.
Stephen T. Shih, Associate Administrator for Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA Headquarters also recognized the need for change.
"These nicknames and terms may have historical or culture connotations that are objectionable or unwelcoming, and NASA is strongly committed to addressing them."
"Science depends on diverse contributions, and benefits everyone, so this means we must make it inclusive."
Inclusivity, by its very nature, creates opportunities and embraces people's differences and strengths. It costs nothing to change an offensive name, and is a great first step toward making science more accessible for everyone.