Inuktitut travels to the planets

Saturn’s new moons could get Inuktitut names



IQALUIT — By the end of next year, Nunavut may no longer be the coldest, most secluded place in the universe with an Inuktitut name.

That distinction could belong to Ijiraq, Sedna and Kiviuq — three tiny, ice-bound moons circling the planet Saturn, nearly 1.3 billion kilometres from Earth.

Astronomers using a powerful telescope discovered the satellites last autumn, but haven’t yet decided what to call them.

If the three Inuktitut terms get the OK from the International Astronomical Union — the group that approves names of new-found cosmic bodies — the moons will be the first objects in the solar system with non-European names.

That’s a big deal to J.J. Kavelaars, a McMaster University astronomer who helped find the moons.

Speaking by telephone last week from his office in Hamilton, Ont., Kavelaars said space scientists have long been biased in favour of names honouring Roman gods, Greek heroes and Shakespearian characters.

“The motivation was to get out of this standard rut,” he said.

To that end, Kavelaars spent this winter searching for names that were both multicultural and distinctly Canadian. He even consulted Native American scholars, but found their suggestions unsatisfactory.

Then, in March, Kavelaars was reading to his young children from a storybook by Rankin Inlet author Michael Kusugak. The idea of Inuktitut moons came to him in a flash.

The book was Hide and Sneak, about a legendary character named Ijiraq who helps children hide so well that they can’t be found.

“The name just kind of leapt out at me,” Kavelaars said.

Given the nature of the elusive mini-moons, “Ijiraq” is the perfect moniker, he said. “It’s very difficult to find these things. They’re well hidden out in space. It all ties together really nicely.”

The three moons are among 12 Saturnian satellites found in September by a team of Canadian, Norwegian and Icelandic astronomers. Some of the other moons will probably get names from Norse and Icelandic mythology.

The new moons aren’t much to look at.

Composed of ice and dirt, they are called “irregular,” and circle Saturn in elliptical, tilted orbits millions of kilometres from the planet’s surface.

All of them are so small they could fit comfortably within the borders of Nunavut. The biggest is just 50 kilometres wide — half the distance from Iqaluit to Kimmirut. It would take only three hours to drive a snowmachine completely around it.

But because since the moons have neither atmosphere or gravity, a skidoo on their surface would float off into space. Worse, the snowmobile would freeze solid. Temperatures on the moons are near absolute zero — a nippy -273°C.

No matter how inhospitable the far-flung moons may be, Michael Kusugak is enthralled that the celestial bodies may soon bear Inuit names.

“I think this is something really, really big,” he said.

“It will give Inuit so much publicity all over the world. People around the world really don’t know much about us. They think Inuit are people living ‘up there, somewhere.’”

He said he was thrilled when he heard about the Inuktitut name proposal, and surprised to learn that an astronomer was reading his books.

He got a call from Kavelaars not long after the astronomer came across the name “Ijiraq.”

That’s when Kusugak suggested two other names from Inuit mythology: Sedna and Kiviuq.

According to Inuit legend Sedna is the godess of the sea. Kiviuq was a legendary hero and traveler of Inuit folklore.

Kavelaars said there’s a good chance the Astronomical Union will give the nod to the Inuktitut names, probably by the end of 2002.

“We talked to members of the committee, and they feel that going to different names than the standard playwright and poet names is fine. In fact, they welcome different alternatives that might get more inclusivity in the naming of solar system objects.”

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