Exploring female names in heaven

All over the world, many women and girls are increasingly choosing science, engineering, mathematics and technology as their academic and professional path.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, marked on February 11, is a date set by UNESCO and aims to draw attention to an inequality in the number of women in scientific research or interested in studies in these areas.

To mark this day, we propose a search and exploration of some feminine names in the sky and in the Solar System. More than just names, these lead us to discover the diversity of contributions present in astronomy.

In a first approach, this search for feminine names in the sky can give rise to some curiosities in our eyes of casual observers.

We see the Sun and Moon in the sky, “the” Sun and “the” Moon! And it's curious that “Sun” is a masculine word and “Moon” is feminine. A first thought might try to give meaning to the gender of these words, noting that “day” and “night” are also masculine and feminine!

This is a misleading thought, as this gender meaning varies with the language used! The same words, in English (“Sun”, “Moon”, “day” and “night”), have no definite gender! In German, the case is curious because Sun and Moon have the genders exchanged compared to Portuguese! To the Sun corresponds “die Sonne” (female) and to the Moon corresponds to “der Mond” (male), and day and night keep the same gender as we have in Portugal (“de tag” and “die nacht”).

This curious preamble alerts us to the dangers of fallacies when trying to count, for example, how many constellations we see in the sky that are male and how many female!

Bear in mind that the constellations are associated with figures that make a cultural allusion to aspects of people who sought some orientation in heaven!

But they are also a tribute, in a “western view”, to what humanity has been facing in its discovery of knowledge.

As an additional feature, until the XNUMXth century, the language chosen to communicate in Science internationally was Latin, which also has the masculine, feminine, and neutral genders! The constellations, without exception, have an official Latin name too!

Therefore, interpreting the genre of a constellation can be more complex than you might think…

There are 88 constellations officially defined by the International Astronomical Union (UAI). A part of these constellations pays homage to the people of Ancient Greece, who, in their prescientific view, had already compiled and “enhanced” mythological figures drawn by stars in the sky.

Another part of the sky, inaccessible to the peoples of Ancient Greece due to its latitude, was mostly dedicated to a particular phase of western exploration of our planet to the southern hemisphere, which involved navigation to the New World and discoveries in this new territory.

Thus, 30 of the constellations are geological objects or formations, 30 are animals, 27 are mythological beings, and 1 is a human being who personifies the new found peoples (the Indian [South American] constellation).


Knowing the sex of a mythological being, in addition to the challenges hidden in the translation, also adds that, in mythology itself, there are several authors with different versions of the myth that support the figure of the constellation!

Capricorn, for example, can be associated with Amaltheia, (female, a mythological goat that suckled Zeus), or with Hera, the wife of Zeus, or a (male) son of Zeus, with the humanized appearance of a goat.

In all these cases, the myths converge in the intentional capacity for self-transformation (for reasons of indecision or strategic advantage, this being was only partially transformed into a fish). This results in a lack of definition as to the gender of the constellation!

There are other constellations that represent a plural set of entities… With Gemini, it is not guaranteed that the siblings are of the same sex. The constellation of Hunting Dogs is also undefined in this aspect.


However, there are animals or mythological beings that manifestly have to be male or female due to explicit references (Ursa Major, Ursa Minor) or due to sexual dimorphism (Lion is male for having the mane, Peacock showing its feathers).

But, for example, the Lesser Leo may not know himself due to the translation of “leo” which does not imply a gender, and there is no known requirement to have a mane or to be a young male. In the XNUMXth century, it even became the constellation “Leoa”, which fuels this uncertainty even more.

Regarding the constellations associated with objects, it makes no sense to interpret from the noun gender.

Taking these limitations into account, the said 88 constellations are divided into 13 clearly male, 5 guaranteed female; in numbers similar to these are the constellations whose interpretation tends towards male (14) or tends towards female (7); and the last 49 have no defined gender or it is uncertain to assign it.



Out of the eight planets of the Solar System, only two have a feminine name: the planet that saw us born and Venus, associated with a deity of beauty and love. The remaining names are based on ancient Roman male deities…

But, going back to the beginning, how then, in modern times, is given a name to an object in space (or in the sky)?

The UAI has working groups dedicated to this: names to assign to planets (if one more is discovered, you never know), to morphological characteristics on those planets (mountains, valleys, craters, lakes, etc.), dwarf planets, natural satellites of planets or smaller bodies in the Solar System.

Traditionally, planet satellites have more female deity names than male deities. This is the case of the moons of the gaseous and icy planets!

Normally, whoever discovers a certain body or aspect is informed of the temporary name that their discovery acquires, but has the right to suggest a name with some associated connotation, which the working group(s) will later evaluate, and will do for o approve or give another path to your appointment. But this process may vary slightly depending on the working groups.

For example, craters, valleys, mountains on planets, satellites or other bodies can be inspired by personalities, botanical species, mountains or cities on our planet. However, planets and moons fall within the mythological context.

Assigning a name thus implies that there is a discoverer, there is a suggestion of a name and, very important for everything, it is necessary that the discovered object let itself be discovered with the technology of the time. This aspect subtly influences our suggestion to focus now on the search for female names in the case of asteroids.

With regard to asteroids and other smaller bodies in the solar system, there are already many examples in the XNUMXth century, of which we only highlight these two:


The asteroid discovered in 1988 (12859) Marlamoore, honoring Marla H. Moore, Research Fellow at Goddard Space Flight Center from NASA. Marla H. Moore is an active professional astronomer and a university professor, with studies on ice irradiation and implications for interstellar grains. It participated in recent space missions, such as OSIRIS-REx, which are dedicated to the exploration of our Solar System.


And the asteroid (12753) Povenmire, originally designated “1993 HE” and co-discovered by astronomer Carolyn Shoemaker, named after Katie Povenmire, a nurse by profession, but amateur astronomer, observer of meteor showers, skimming stars by the moon, asteroidal occultations, and with scientific contribution to the determination of the dimensions of these objects.

These two cases show that the contribution to science does not even have to be made by a professional in the field, and that, even so, recognition is deserved with the attribution of the names of objects in the sky.

Science needs correct and methodical work, which can be done independently of one's background knowledge and experience.


In the XNUMXth century, among the first asteroids to receive female names are:

(238) Hypatia, discovered in 1884, inspired by Hypatia of Alexandria – a XNUMXth century BC philosopher whose commentaries on Ptolemy's work were found and used by Copernicus, showing that even in antiquity, before science was a consolidated Science, there were already influential women in thought and knowledge.

This milestone is important because it is the time when the written texts transitioned from seeing our planet system centered on the Earth, to a star system with the Sun being orbited by the planets.

Changing thinking from a geocentric to a heliocentric model was a real revolution and this woman played an important role in this transition.


(281) Lucretia – Honoring Caroline Lucretia Herschel, sister of William Herschel, was discovered in 1888.

This astronomer lived in a different time than Hypatia. The global view of how the Solar System “worked” was much more “stable”; however, their mysteries about how the planets were formed were still being lived and it was a time that provided for the discovery of countless new objects.

In the previous century, Halley had demonstrated that comets could be periodic (with its first discovered periodic comet, Comet Halley) and the search for more comets and other objects had not slowed down.

Already working with her brother, she was a contemporary of his discovery of Uranus. Caroline helped her brother develop the modern mathematical approach to astronomy.

This mathematical knowledge assumes special importance since the next planet was discovered by mathematical prediction of its position. Caroline was also the first woman to discover a comet, as well as seven others in the following years…

He discovered three more Nebulae and made corrections to hundreds of cataloged star positions.

In addition to the asteroid, its name has been given to lunar craters (C. Herschel) and more objects in the night sky: an NGC 2360 star cluster known as "Caroline's Cluster", and another NGC 7789 dubbed "Caroline's Rose".


Scientific instruments and entire observatories can also be named after personalities, and the Vera C. Rubin observatory (located in Chile, on Elqui Peak, 350 km north of the capital Santiago) is an example of this.

Vera Rubin pioneered the observation of the rotation of galaxies and the perception of how this rotation differed from what would be expected. To explain the rotation, more matter would have to exist, “dark” or invisible to our instruments.

With the end of construction scheduled for next year, this observatory will explore the skies in search of knowledge about numerous galaxies simultaneously, continuing the work of the astronomer that inspired its name, in understanding dark matter.

We can only hope for a future in which all humans are curious, collaborate, explore and in which everyone helps to unravel the scientific mysteries yet to be found and that astronomy has in store for us!


Author Filipe Dias, astronomer at the Centro Ciência Viva do Algarve



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