When British astronomer William Herschel pointed his telescope toward the skies for one of his star surveys on one cold night in 1781, he noticed something odd. Amongst the pinned incandescent lamps, he observed a bright shimmering light. Herschel had accidentally discovered the planet we now call Uranus.
Effusive, following his monumental discovery, and this is something people seldom know, Herschel decided to name it Georgium Sidus, after his patron King George III, like any loyal astronomer would do to continue receiving funding. For a brief period of 5-7 years, astronomy books enumerated the planets in the order Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and…George. However, Johann Bode suggested the name Uranus.
Bode did not merely pluck a word from the lexicon of ostentatious-sounding names; there’s a reason why he ascribed this particular name. The ascription conforms to a tradition that has been in place since antiquity. The title makes sense when we realize how the first six planets got their names. Also, it sounds much cooler than the drab “George”.
Mercury is the smallest and innermost planet of the Solar System. Mercury is very difficult to view with the naked eye, due to its proximity to the sun, but it can be viewed indirectly during its transits. A transit occurs when it passes between the sun and another superior planet, such that it appears as a black dot darting across the disk of the sun.
Besides the moon, Mercury is one of the five brightest planets glittering in the sky and came into notice of the Romans. It orbits the sun at a velocity of 50 km/s, so the Romans appropriately named it after their swiftest god, Mercury, the god of travel and commerce. This is the Roman equivalent of the ancient Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods.
Venus is the second planet in the solar system and our closest celestial neighbor. Besides the moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky. This makes its appearance conspicuous and allows it to be easily identified. It has been observed by stargazers for more than 4 millennia. Venus is one of two planets that spins clockwise, or east to west, in the opposite direction to how the other planets rotate.
Due to its vivid gleam, the planet was perceived to be extremely admirable. This led it to be named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus. Her Greek equivalent was Aphrodite. It was first observed by Mayan astronomers, which led them to form a highly accurate calendar. Centuries later, in 1610, Galileo documented its phases in his highly regarded work The Starry Messenger.
Our humble abode, the blue marble, is the largest terrestrial planet and the fifth-largest planet in the solar system. Surprisingly, we disobeyed the Roman-Greek tradition when it came to naming our own planet. The name “Earth” is not a Roman or Greek god but rather a millennia-old English/German word that simply translates to “Ground”.
Earth is definitely the most unique planet in the solar system, and all of the other planets we’ve observed, due to its acclamation for life. Its temperature and chemical composition are “just” perfect to support life. The temperature was neither high enough to vaporize water, nor cold enough to freeze it; it lingered just around the right value that allowed it to remain in its liquid form, which was the most convenient place to begin life.
Mars is the fourth planet from the sun and the second-smallest planet in the solar system. Like Venus, Mars is also readily visible to the naked eye. The first telescopic observations were made by, as you might have guessed, Galileo, in 1610. The planet has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are not spherical, but rather oddly shaped, due to a slackening of gravity as a result of their lack of mass.
Egyptians dubbed it “the red one” calling it Her Desher. This was probably due to the vicious blood-red color it radiates, due to the iron oxide prevalent on its rugged surface. However, the planet was eventually named Mars, after the Roman god of war, for the same reasons.
Eventually, we arrived at a general consensus that planets must be named after Roman gods and their moons after Greek gods that were intimately linked to the Greek god equivalents of the Roman gods after which the planet is named. For instance, Phobos and Deimos, the Greek gods of fear, are siblings, as well as the children of Ares – the Greek god of war.
Saturn is the sixth and second-largest planet in the solar system. Like Jupiter, Saturn is a massive ball of gas. Its density is so low that it would float in a bucket of water! However, it is most notably known for its numinous rings.
When Galileo peeked at Saturn through a telescope in 1610, he was astonished to find a pair of objects on either side. He sketched his observation as separate spheres, believing Saturn to be triple-bodied. Subsequently, Christian Huygens discovered its rings in 1655, and later in 1675, Cassini discovered the divisions between them.