Terms we use to describe the cosmos aren’t immune to scrutiny at a time when many people are working to identify and remove racist language. Just as tech terms are being reevaluated, NASA is also reconsidering how we talk about space.
“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,” the space agency said in a statement Wednesday. “NASA is examining its use of unofficial terminology for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
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Nicknames are especially popular when it comes to galaxies and nebulae. Check out Arp 142, which consists of NGC 2336 and NGC 2937. Those designations might not ring a bell for most people, but you’d definitely remember “the Penguin and the Egg” galaxies because they look like an adorable penguin guarding an egg.
NASA gave two examples of cosmic objects it’ll no longer use nicknames for. Planetary nebula NGC 2392 has been called the “Eskimo Nebula.” “‘Eskimo’ is widely viewed as a colonial term with a racist history, imposed on the indigenous people of Arctic regions,” NASA explained.
NASA already added a note to a 2008 image release showing NGC 2392 that explains the decision to retire the nickname.
The agency will also use only the official designations of NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 to refer to a pair of spiral galaxies that were known as the “Siamese Twins Galaxy.”
This reexamination of cosmic names is ongoing.
“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,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.