The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has provided Belgium with a very special gift: its own planet.
The “exoplanet” (so-called because it is a planet which exists outside of our solar system) is known as D49674b, and is located in the Auriga constellation. It was discovered in 2002.
The planet is a gas giant, much like Neptune, Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter. However, it is significantly heavier than any planet in our solar system: its mass is 31,783 times larger than that of the Earth – our heaviest planet, Jupiter, is only 318 times more massive – and it takes a mere 4.9 days to complete an orbit around its star.
Belgium received this gift on the occasion of the IAU’s 100th birthday, a day in which the IAU also granted exoplanets to every country in the world in order to encourage people to think more deeply about human beings’ place in the universe.
The IAU is currently the largest organisation for astronomers in the world, and consists of more than 13,500 professional members.
Each country has right to name its own exoplanet. In the Netherlands, the public is expected to vote on the name of their exoplanet in an online poll later this year; Belgium is expected to follow a similar approach, according to a professor of astronomy at KU Leuven, Leen Decin.
All exoplanets distributed by the IAU are visible with (at most) the aid of a small telescope from the countries to which they have been gifted. “Auriga is a constellation in the shape of a W, and is perfectly visible from Belgium,” Professor Decin told VRT NWS.
All countries have until November to propose a name for their exoplanet. The IAU will then present all of the given names at a special event to be held in December.