Inspired by the sea goddess Sedna


By Cheryl Petten

Originally published in Windspeaker Vol 22, Issue 1, 2004.

While Sedna's realm is usually limited to the ocean depths, if Mike Brown has his way, her name will also be associated with the farthest, coldest reaches of our solar system.

Brown is an associate professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology who headed up the team credited with finding a planetoid located three times farther from the sun than Pluto—the farthest object within our solar system that has ever been discovered. The planetoid—smaller than a planet, but larger than an asteroid—was discovered last November, but the team didn't announce their findings until March 15.

Although its official designation is 2003 VB12, Mike Brown is proposing the newly discovered planetoid be named Sedna, after the goddess from Inuit mythology who lives at the bottom of the ocean.

Sedna was once a beautiful woman who was tricked into marrying a birdman. When her father learned the truth about his new son-in-law, he set out to rescue his daughter, killing the birdman and then heading for home with the girl in his kayak. But when the birdman's friends learned he had been killed, they flew over the boat, flapping their wings and creating a menacing storm. Fearing for his life, the man tried to throw his daughter overboard to save himself, but she clung onto the edge of the kayak, so he pulled out a knife and cut off her fingers. The girl sank to the bottom of the ocean and, as she did, all the creatures of the sea came into being, flowing from her severed fingers. The girl became a sea goddess, and the Inuit knew that if she was not kept happy she would withhold her sea creatures from them, and hunting would be poor.

"When we first discovered it, and after the initial excitement of trying to figure out everything about it, we realized we needed to come up with a good name for it," Brown said of the planetoid. "We knew it was the coldest, most distant place known in the solar system."

"We think that we're going to find many more out there that far away. Now that we've found one, we'll find more. We wanted to come up with a good theme for all of them that we find, something other than creation deities [as per naming rules set out by the International Astronomical Union (IAU)]. And in thinking about it, and thinking about how cold these things were, it seemed like the most reasonable theme, or at least one reasonable theme, was that we should name all these things after Arctic mythologies. So with that, we decided to start reading and learning as much as we could and that's what led us to Sedna. And from what we could learn, she's one of the most important of the Inuit goddesses and we just thought that was appropriate for this very first object that's been found out there."

This isn't the first time Sedna has been immortalized among the stars. Last year, the IAU approved names for a dozen newly discovered moons of Saturn, four of which were named after characters in Inuit literature. One of the moons is named Siarnaq, one of the many names Sedna is known by. Brown said that when he first suggested Sedna as the name for the planetoid, he wasn't aware that four of Saturn's moons bore Inuit names. It was only after a call from Windspeaker that he learned that one of those names was another name for Sedna. The final word from the IAU on naming the planetoid is expected to come in about a year.