TITLE: Out of this World: New Astronomy Symbols Approved for the Unicode Standard


Five Trans-Neptunian Objects to Join Character Set

By Deborah Anderson, Chair of Unicode Script Ad Hoc Committee

In January 2022, the Unicode Technical Committee approved five new
symbols to be published in Unicode 15.0. With the projected release date of
September 2022, these symbols are based on newly discovered trans-Neptunian
objects (TNOs) in the Solar System. They resulted from research efforts such as
those led by astronomer and professor Dr. Michael Brown at the California
Institute of Technology (CalTech).

These five objects orbit the Sun at a distance far larger than the
major planets. They are currently believed to be large enough to be round,
planetary worlds, in a category of objects called “dwarf planets” that also
includes Ceres, Pluto, Eris and probably Sedna. The most famous trans-Neptunian
object is Pluto, which historically had been considered to be the ninth planet
from the Sun, but was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006 by the
International Astronomical Union (IAU).[1]

How did this happen?

Individuals or organizations who want to propose new characters
have to check existing characters to avoid duplicates, find out if there are
equivalent forms already in existence, and most critically, determine the need
for a digital interchange of them, such as symbols that have been encoded for use
by NASA and other agencies. The proposal authors then must submit a proposal that articulates
how their request meets the criteria.

Once a proposal is submitted, the Unicode Technical Committee
determines whether to review the proposal and accept or decline it. This process
can take a couple of years or more. In the case of these five characters, the
proposers demonstrated the need, clearing the path for approval. 

Tell me more about these new characters. What are their names?

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has standard conventions
for naming objects both within and outside of the solar system. Objects orbiting
the Sun outside the orbit of Neptune are named after mythological figures,
particularly those associated with creation. But the subset that orbit in a
two-to-three resonance with Neptune — the so-called “plutinos”, such as Pluto
and Orcus — are named after figures associated with the underworld. In this
case, the five TNOs, ordered by distance from the sun, are named:

Orcus: the Etruscan and Roman god of the underworld.

Haumea: the Hawaiian goddess of fertility; the telescope
used to discover this object is located on Hawaiʻi.

Quaoar: an important mythological figure of
the Tongva, the indigenous people who originally occupied the land where
CalTech is located.

Makemake: the creator god of the Rapanui of Easter Island.

Gonggong: a destructive Chinese water god.

What information is there on the actual symbols that will be available?

All five symbols were designed by Denis Moskowitz, a software
engineer in Massachusetts who had previously designed the Unicode symbol for
Sedna. He drew inspiration from existing symbols and the “native name or
culture” of the objects’ namesakes [2] to create the characters.

Denis explains his inspiration for each symbol below:

Orcus: The symbol for Orcus is a
combination of the Latin letters “O” and “R”, stylized to resemble a skull
and an orca’s grin.

Haumea: The symbol created for Haumea was a
combination and simplification of Hawaiian petroglyphs for “childbirth” and

Quaoar: The symbol is the Latin letter “Q”
with the tail fashioned into the shape of a canoe. The angular shape is
intended to reflect Tongva rock art.

Makemake: The Makemake symbol is a
traditional petroglyph of the face of the creator god Makemake, stylized to
suggest an “M”. The design was a collaboration with John T. Whelan.

Gonggong: Gonggong’s symbol was based on
the first Chinese character in the god’s name, 共 gòng, with a snaky tail
replacing the lower section.

What else should we know?

The five symbols supplement a set of other characters for planetary
objects that were published in 2018 (Unicode 11.0) and earlier. Two of the newly
approved characters appear in a NASA
Other people have used the symbols in various media, including tattoos and art.
Ultimately, these five new characters will join the 149,180 other characters in
the Unicode Standard Version 15.0 and be accessible to anyone, anywhere in the
world, who is using a computer or mobile device.

Where can I learn more?

[1] IAU on identification of dwarf planets

[2] Symbols for large trans-Neptunian objects

NASA poster “What is a dwarf planet?”

Michael Brown’s website on which bodies may be dwarf planets

Astrolog software website with info on dwarf planets

Earlier proposal for Eris and Sedna

Wikipedia with list of Trans-Neptunian objects

Wikipedia article on dwarf planets

Chart with other symbols (added in Unicode 11.0)


Special thanks to Sarah Rivera and Kirk Miller for their
contributions to this blog.

Over 144,000 characters are available for adoption
to help the Unicode Consortium’s work on digitally disadvantaged languages