Ancient Patriarchs: It was the Romans whose names for the first known planets after their gods were the ones that stuck. And who were these gods? Venus, Mars, Jupiter (Yapheth son of Noah), Saturn or Saturnus (after whom also saturday was named) was a kings’ title for many of the old kings and deities in Egypt and Greece, like Cronus or Kronus, which was the Greek name for Ham the son of Noah, and who was the major religious influence after the Flood drawing away many nations after himself into paganism away from the worship of the Creator of Noah (Ouranos) his father. And why? Because of a family incident where Ham disrespectfully ogled the nakedness of his father which caused the original split in our original human family.
Who decides what to name the planets? And who named them?
The planet names are derived from Roman and Greek mythology, except for the name Earth which is Germanic and Old English in origin. The five planets easily visible with the unaided eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) have been observed for all human history as far as we can tell, and they were called different things by different cultures. The Romans named these planets according to their movements and appearence. For example, Venus, the planet that appears the brightest, was named after the Roman goddess of beauty, while the reddish Mars was named after the god of war. These Roman names were adopted by European languages and culture and became standard in science.
When Uranus and Neptune were discovered, there was not an established tradition in place so a few names were considered and used for each planet, until one name became standard. William Herschel, who discovered Uranus, wanted to name it “Georgium Sidus” after King George III. Other astronomers called it “Herschel” after the discoverer. The astronomer Johann Bode suggested that it would be more appropriate to use the mythological name Uranus, which would match with the five planets that were named in antiquity. Despite the suggestion, the name Uranus was not commonly used until 1850.
The existence of the planet Neptune was predicted by two astronomers (John Couch Adams and Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier), and when it was discovered with telescopes there was a debate about who should be allowed to name it. Leverrier actually wanted to name it after himself. However, the name Neptune was proposed and became the standard used by scientists.
Pluto (now a dwarf planet) was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. According to the Nine Planets Website, other names suggested for Pluto included Lowell, Atlas, Artemis, Perseus, Vulan, Tantalus, Idana, Cronus, Zymal and Minerva (suggested by the New York Times). The name Pluto was apparently suggested by Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old from Oxford, England, and then recommended to astronomers by the observatory staff. Pluto won out, possibly because it’s appropriate for the most distant world to be named after the god of the underworld.
Pluto’s moon was named by its discoverer, James Christy, who found the moon in 1978 when studying photographic plates of Pluto. Apparently he wanted to name it after his wife, Charlene, but the nomenclature rules in astronomy wouldn’t allow this. However, when he was looking for a different name he came across the Greek mythological figure Charon, which included the first part of his wife’s name. Plus it was very appropriate since Charon was the ferryman who carried people to the underworld, which fits very well with the name of its planet, Pluto!
So who’s in charge of naming solar system objects that are discovered now? Since its organization in 1919, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has been in charge of naming all celestial objects. When an astronomer discovers an object, or wants to name a surface feature, they can submit a suggestion to the IAU, and the IAU either approves it or suggests a different name. Since we don’t think there are any undiscovered planets, the IAU focuses on the naming of moons, surface features, asteroids, and comets and has websites about naming conventions for each. For more information about nomenclature traditions and history, you can look at the USGS planetary nomenclature page, or the Minor Planet Center site which describes how small objects like asteroids are named. You can also look at the Comet Nomenclature website.
Although the Roman names for the planets are standard in science, other languages do have different names for planets. A good list is at this website. However, the IAU standards are what is used in scientific writing.
THE ANCIENT KNOWN PLANETS
History of Mercury
In Roman mythology Mercury is the god of commerce, travel and thievery, the Roman counterpart of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. The planet probably received this name because it moves so quickly across the sky. Mercury has been known since at least the time of the Sumerians (3rd millennium BC).
History of Saturn
Saturn has been known since prehistoric times. Galileo was the first to observe it with a telescope in 1610; he noted its odd appearance but was confused by it. Early observations of Saturn were complicated by the fact that the Earth passes through the plane of Saturn’s rings every few years as Saturn moves in its orbit. A low resolution image of Saturn therefore changes drastically. It was not until 1659 that Christiaan Huygens correctly inferred the geometry of the rings. Saturn’s rings remained unique in the known solar system until 1977 when very faint rings were discovered around Uranus and shortly thereafter around Jupiter and Neptune.
History of Jupiter
Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in the sky (after the Sun, the Moon and Venus). It has been known since prehistoric times as a bright “wandering star”. But in 1610 when Galileo first pointed a telescope at the sky he discovered Jupiter’s four large moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (now known as the Galilean moons) and recorded their motions back and forth around Jupiter.
History of Venus
Venus (Greek: Aphrodite; Babylonian: Ishtar) is the goddess of love and beauty. The planet is so named probably because it is the brightest of the planets known to the ancients. (With a few exceptions, the surface features on Venus are named for female figures.) Venus has been known since prehistoric times. It is the brightest object in the sky except for the Sun and the Moon. Like Mercury, it was popularly thought to be two separate bodies: Eosphorus as the morning star and Hesperus as the evening star, but the Greek astronomers knew better. (Venus’s apparition as the morning star is also sometimes called Lucifer.)
History of Mars
Mars (Greek: Ares) is the god of War. The planet probably got this name due to its red color; Mars is sometimes referred to as the Red Planet. (An interesting side note: the Roman god Mars was a god of agriculture before becoming associated with the Greek Ares; those in favor of colonizing and terraforming Mars may prefer this symbolism.) The name of the month March derives from Mars. Mars has been known since prehistoric times. Of course, it has been extensively studied with ground-based observatories. But even very large telescopes find Mars a difficult target, it’s just too small. It is still a favorite of science fiction writers as the most favorable place in the Solar System (other than Earth!) for human habitation. But the famous “canals” “seen” by Lowell and others were, unfortunately, just as imaginary as Barsoomian princesses.