NASA drops ‘colonial’ nicknames for distant cosmic objects

A distant, exploding star and an orbiting pair of spiral galaxies will now be known by a string of numbers after NASA decided to review the use of “insensitive” and “actively harmful” astronomical nicknames.

The planetary nebula NGC 2392, located some 5,000 light years from Earth, has been called the “Eskimo Nebula” by scientists since it was first observed in 1787 by the astronomer William Herschel. A fuzzy outer disk of material, first scattered into space roughly 10,000 years ago, resembles the fur-lined hood of a parka.

“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,” reads a news release from NASA this week.

“‘Eskimo’ is widely viewed as a colonial term with a racist history, imposed on the Indigenous people of Arctic regions,” it continues. “Most official documents have moved away from its use.”

Grey Hautaluoma, communications lead at NASA’s headquarters, says the agency is working to promote diversity in the scientific field.

“We feel like science is for everyone,” said Hautaluoma.

“We’re always trying to increase the pipeline of people coming up in the field that look more like our world, [and] also just actively working to be more inclusive.”

NASA’s announcement this week to review astronomical nicknames calls the decision an “initial step.”

Norma Dunning is an Inuk writer and a professor with a doctoral degree in Indigenous people’s education. She thinks that NASA’s decision to stop using the nickname is a move in the right direction. (Submitted by Norma Dunning)

‘A wonderful move’

The change comes amid growing calls to review racist nicknames and mascots in professional sports and business. Edmonton’s CFL team dropped the epithet from their team name last month.

That name change was one that University of Alberta professor and Inuk writer Norma Dunning lobbied in support of for years, and she’s happy to see the space agency following suit.

“I think this is a wonderful move. NASA has very far-reaching influence and hopefully these other corporations … will be influenced by their good thinking.”

She said despite it taking years to make the changes, it is important that they are starting to happen. She hopes that the conversations continue and things are made better for future generations, including her six grandchildren.

“We have to think about all the Inuit … coming behind us, all of our youth, all of our little children. They’re the ones who matter in this.”

The twin galaxies NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 in the Virgo cluster will also now be referred to by their catalogue numbers. (Judy Schmidt [CC-BY-SA 2.0])

NGC 2392 is not the only astral body affected by the change. A pair of spiral galaxies in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster roughly 52 million light years away, previously nicknamed the “Siamese Twin Galaxies,” will also be referred to by their catalogue numbers, NGC 4567 and NGC 4568.

While the space agency committed to reviewing other nicknames in consultation with “diversity, inclusion and equity experts,” many will likely not be affected.

The release says “more approachable and public-friendly” nicknames, like the Horsehead Nebula (a.k.a. Barnard 33), are OK to stay.

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