Five Trans-Neptunian Objects to Join Character SetBy 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).
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.
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  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 “woman”.
- 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.
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 poster. 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?
-  IAU on identification of dwarf planets
-  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