When astronomers and amateur stargazers look up into the night sky at Saturn, they might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Ijiraq, Kiviuq, Siarnaq or Paaliaq.
Those are the names of four of Saturn's 31 moons, given Inuit names thanks to astronomer Dr. J.J. Kavelaars and Inuit author Michael Kusugak, whose book Hide and Sneak helped inspire Kavelaars to suggest Inuit names for the four icy satellites he discovered in the fall of 2000.
Kavelaars, a Canadian astronomer who currently works with the National Research Council's Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and two of his colleagues found a dozen new satellites circling the ringed giant planet. The moons were found using the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope located in Hawaii, which is equipped with a digital camera that takes large and detailed photographs of the sky.
"My area of research is on the formation of the solar system and trying to understand the processes that were important when the solar system was forming. So what objects were around, and how they interacted," Kavelaars explained. "And as part of that, I've been looking for moons around the giant planets. And the first one was discovered by the group that I work with in 1997 around Uranus, and then we looked for ones around Neptune and found some there and around Saturn. And actually this past January around Jupiter. We've managed to, I think, sort of double the size of the known satellite population in the last five or six years."
The idea of giving the new satellites Inuit names was not without controversy. Traditionally, the names of Saturn's moons have been taken from Greek mythology. But Kavelaars and the other co-discoverers took this opportunity to change that.
"What happened was in '97 when we found the ones around Uranus, we proposed a set of names for them that were derived from the traditional names for Uranian satellites, which is Shakespearean characters. So we suggested those names for them. And it was the first time anybody had named a satellite of a planet that had been discovered from the ground for 50 years. And when we suggested those names, some of our colleagues said, 'Well you know, you guys have a chance to change things after 50 years, and you went back to those old themes. You know, maybe something more inclusive would have been better.' And I never thought much about it afterwards, except that, 'Yeah, you know, maybe we should have done that,'" Kavelaars said.
"And so then when we found these ones around Saturn, that suggestion that had been made by some people came up. Individually, there's actually three people on the team who were sort of the key scientists, myself and a fellow at [the University of British Columbia] and a fellow at Harvard, and we each came up with what we thought would be a good theme. So I suggested the Inuit names, and the fellow at Harvard suggested Norse names, and the guy at UBC wanted to use Gallish names. And so those three themes were used."
While the discoverers of the moons were free to suggest names for their finds, those suggestions still had to be approved by the nomenclature committee of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). That approval came in July, when the IAU held its 25th general assembly in Sydney, Australia. But judging from the mixed reactions of colleagues, Kavelaars wasn't sure if that approval would be forthcoming.
"There were two strong reactions. One was, 'Way to go. Yes, that's a great idea. Finally, something new and interesting in terms of nomenclature,'" he said. "And then there was a group of people who reacted strongly in the other sense, thinking that we had broken a tradition and that's not a good thing to do. You should try to follow tradition and didn't want to see things change. And it actually took quite a while, quite a bit of negotiating. Or not negotiating, but basically just us, the discoverers, suggesting over and over and over again that we do it this way. And eventually, muh to my surprise, the nomenclature committee eventually came around and adopted our naming scheme. I didn't think it was going to happen, because I'd seen them overrule other choices. But I think we made a persuasive argument, and they went for it."
Originally, Kavelaars hadn't been thinking specifically about using Inuit names to identify the new moons. He'd started out trying to find names in Native Canadian literature, as a way to be more inclusive.
"There's a lot of Greek references, a lot of Roman references, British references, why not North American Aboriginal references? We're looking at the satellites around external worlds. They don't belong to anybody. We're giving them names for our own purposes for the whole world to use. Let's not exclude various cultures by not using any kind of references from them. Certainly the International Astronomical Union that names this, they are the International Astronomical Union," he said.
"I wanted something where I could actually get a literature reference, where there would be stories and people could read about them. And I was having a hard time finding someone who could actually help me with that," he said.
"And then a few weeks later I was reading this book to my children called Hide and Sneak by Michael Kusugak and it had this creature called the Ijiraq in it. And I thought, 'Hey, that's a good name, and here's a story that goes with it. I'm all set.' And so then I contacted Michael and said, 'Okay, I want to use Ijiraq as one of the names. Got any other ideas?' And we discussed it for, actually, over I guess the course of the year, a number of e-mails back and forth, and came up with a set of names.
Kavelaars was a little worried the Inuit names wouldn't be approved by the IAU because they were hard to pronounce, so he decided to select names that all ended in the letter q, to make the group of names easily identifiable.
"So you don't have to really know the names exactly, except that when you lok at them you say, 'OK, that one ends in q. It's one from that group.' And that makes that group distinct. Although the names to me are also quite distinct, but I'm used to saying them now," Kavelaars said.
Three of the names selected for the moons-Ijiraq, Kiviuq and Siarnaq-are from Inuit legend.
The Ijiraq, which was featured in Kusugak's book Hide and Sneak, is a mysterious creature that Inuit parents used to keep their children from wandering.
"We liked to play hide and seek like everybody else when I was a kid," Kusugak said. "And we were always warned not to play too much, because if you get too serious about playing hide and seek, you go running off and you hide in some really nifty place and then the weather changes and you can't find your way back. It was very dangerous for little kids to be wandering off, so we were always warned that if you play hide and seek too much, this little Ijiraq will come and it will hide you and no one will ever find you again.
"So nobody really knows what those things look like. We know that they're little creatures, and that they love to play hide and seek. But if you've ever seen one, then you are hidden and nobody ever finds you again."
Kiviuq is the name of a hero of Inuit mythology, whose many adventures are featured in stories told and retold throughout the Arctic. It is said Kiviuq has lived many lives, and continues his adventures to this day.
"Kiviuq, as far as I'm concerned, is the most important character in Inuit legends... so I thought one of them has to be named for that character," Kusugak said.
The name Siarnaq is just one of the many names for a mythological Inuit creature that lives at the bottom of the ocean, and from whom all sea life sprang. The legends tell of a beautiful young woman who was tricked by a birdman into marrying him. When her father discovered it was not a man his daughter had married, he killed the birdman and he and the girl headed home in his kayak. The birdman's frinds were angry at what the father had done, and flew over the kayak, flapping their wings wildly and causing a storm. The father, fearing for his life, tried to throw his daughter overboard in order to save himself, but she continued to hold tightly to the edge of the kayak, so he pulled out his knife and, one by one, cut off her fingers. The girl sank to the bottom of the ocean, but as she sank, all the creatures of the sea flowed from her fingers.
The legend goes that she became that sea goddess, who must be kept happy or she will withhold her creatures and hunting will be poor. When this happens, a shaman must transform himself into a fish and swim to the bottom of the ocean to comb and braid her hair in order to make her happy again.
The fourth name, Paaliaq, is a character Kusugak created in his latest book, Marble Island-The Curse of the Shaman, which Kusugak is currently trying to get published. The characters Kiviuq and Siarnaq are also found in the book.
"In that story, I have this old woman telling the story of Kiviuq. And then I have a chapter that deals with Inuit shamanism. And I have a shaman in the book whose name is Paaliaq. And Paaliaq just so happens, ends with a q. So I was really surprised," Kusugak said.
"I sent [Kavelaars] that bit about Siarnaq, or we call her Nuliajuk, that creature that lives under the sea, who's also know as Sedna. She's got so many names ... sometimes she's simply called the Old Woman Who Lives Down There. Anyway, I was talking about the realm of the shaman in this book, and I said, "And the only person who can go down there and comb her hair and make her feel better is the shaman Paaliaq.' And this was just something I made up in my story. So I was really surprised when the final approved list of names of these four moons of Saturn included Paaliaq, because I just made him up. That was fun."
People who learn of Kusugak's involvement in naming the moons are pretty impressed, especially when they learn tha