Wednesday 15 March 2023

Star-Gayzing: Cervantes is a Real Star

In the past I’ve written a lot about minor planets (or asteroids, as they are also known) that are named after members of the lgbt+ community. I’ll be publishing another list in June. Some of the major and dwarf planets have names with lgbt+ associations (Jupiter/Zeus and Ganymede, for example). Further afield there are billions of stars waiting for us to give a name to.

For about 30 years astronomers have been discovering that a lot of stars have planets orbiting them. These are called exoplanets. Like every other object in the night sky that is discovered, whether they are stars, planets, asteroids or comets, they are given reference designations made up of letters and numbers. Not many of them have been given names, so today I’d like to concentrate on one of those stars and its exoplanets that have lgbt+ connections. This is the star system with the astronomical designation of Mu Arae.

First of all, where is Mu Arae? Its one of the stars in the little known constellation of Ara the Altar. This is a constellation immediately below the “tail” of Scorpius and can be seen in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It appears in the traditional sky lore of communities as far afield as the Mediterranean, China and Australia. None of Ara’s stars are particularly bright, and it doesn’t help that the Milky Way cuts straight behind it. In the star map below I have circled Mu Arae in red.

Now that we know where Mu Arae is, what is its new name? After a highly successful campaign the star was given the proper name Cervantes in 2015, after the great Spanish poet and author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616).

In the late 20th century there was a lot of questioning into Cervantes’ sexuality, largely based on his writings inspired by his experience in 16th century Algiers and its atmosphere of sexual freedom. Decades later there is still no definitive consensus among historians. I have an open mind on the subject.

Even if the sexuality of Cervantes is open to debate, that of the astrophysicist who led the campaign to have Mu Area named after him is not. His name is Javier Armentia (b.1962), and he is the Director of the Pamplona Planetarium in northern Spain. He is also a leading populariser of science, a broadcaster, and a member of 500 Queer Scientists.

The campaign to name Mu Arae (which will also retain this scientific designation) after Cervantes was a joint venture between the Pamplona Planetarium, the Cervantes Institute, and the Spanish Astronomy Society. The campaign was called Estrella Cervantes.

Two events prompted the Estrella Cervantes campaign. First was the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) NameExoWorld project in 2015. This was aimed at encouraging public organisations to submit names for a selection of the many discovered exoplanets and their stars. The second was a double anniversary. The year 2015 was the 400th anniversary of the publication of the second part of Cervantes’ famous work “Don Quixote” (to give it its most common name), and it was also the approaching 400th anniversary of the death of Cervantes in 1616.

The Estrella Cervantes project appealed for support and votes. On 15th December 2015 the campaign was successful and the IAU officially announced that the star Mu Arae was to be given the name Cervantes. But that’s not all. We’re also talking about exoplanets. So what did the project proposed for the names of the four known planets orbiting Cervantes? They proposed names of characters from Cervantes’ work. Consequently, the IAU also officially announced that the names Dulcinea, Roxinante, Quijote and Sancho were to be given to the four planets.

There are many more stars and exoplanets that have been named over the past eight years. Many more are being discovered. A few years ago I wrote about three lgbt+ astronomers who are searching for them. Who knows what other famous lgbt+ names will end up out there in the future.

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