When New Horizons did its historic flybys of Pluto last year, scientists and civilians alike were delighted to see so many features on Pluto's surface that had, up to that point, never been seen before. We were finally able to cross the bridge from imagining what Pluto looked like to being able to see it with our own eyes (well, New Horizon's eyes!). And now, those newly discovered features have names.
Most of us know that the craters, volcanoes, and other features on bodies like the Moon, Mars, and Mercury have names. Olympus Mons, Mare Tranquillitatis, and so forth. But how do those things get their names?
Well, there is an official committee called the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN), which is part of the International Astronomers Union (IAU). Names for the features are submitted to them, and then they approve them. Some names for Pluto's features were suggested by NASA and the New Horizons team, others by the public as part of the Our Pluto campaign.
“We’re very excited to approve names recognising people of significance to Pluto and the pursuit of exploration as well as the mythology of the underworld. These names highlight the importance of pushing to the frontiers of discovery,” said Rita Schulz, chair of the WGPSN. “We appreciate the contribution of the general public in the form of their naming suggestions and the New Horizons team for proposing these names to us.”
Among the names approved were those of scientists who spent their lives studying the far reaches of our solar system.
“The approved designations honour many people and space missions who paved the way for the historic exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the most distant worlds ever explored,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
According to the IAU, the approved feature names include:
Tombaugh Regio honours Clyde Tombaugh (1906–1997), the U.S. astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930 from Lowell Observatory in Arizona.
Burney crater honors Venetia Burney (1918–2009), who as an 11-year-old schoolgirl suggested the name “Pluto” for Clyde Tombaugh’s newly discovered planet. Later in life she taught mathematics and economics.
Sputnik Planitia is a large plain named after Sputnik 1, the first space satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.
Tenzing Montes and Hillary Montes are mountain ranges honouring Tenzing Norgay (1914–1986) and Sir Edmund Hillary (1919–2008), the Indian/Nepali Sherpa and New Zealand mountaineer who were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest and return safely.
Al-Idrisi Montes honours Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi (1100–1165/66), a noted Arab mapmaker and geographer whose landmark work of medieval geography is sometimes translated as “The Pleasure of Him Who Longs to Cross the Horizons.”
Djanggawul Fossae defines a network of long, narrow depressions named for the Djanggawuls, three ancestral beings in indigenous Australian mythology who travelled between the island of the dead and Australia, creating the landscape and filling it with vegetation.
Sleipnir Fossa is named for the powerful, eight-legged horse of Norse mythology that carried the god Odin into the underworld.
Virgil Fossae honors Virgil, one of the greatest Roman poets and Dante’s fictional guide through hell and purgatory in the Divine Comedy.
Adlivun Cavus is a deep depression named for Adlivun, the underworld in Inuit mythology.
Hayabusa Terra is a large land mass saluting the Japanese spacecraft and mission (2003–2010) that returned the first asteroid sample.
Voyager Terra honours the pair of NASA spacecraft, launched in 1977, that performed the first “grand tour” of all four giant planets. The Voyager spacecraft are now probing the boundary between the Sun and interstellar space.
Tartarus Dorsa is a ridge named for Tartarus, the deepest, darkest pit of the underworld in Greek mythology.
Elliot crater recognises James Elliot (1943–2011), an MIT researcher who pioneered the use of stellar occultations to study the Solar System — leading to discoveries such as the rings of Uranus and the first detection of Pluto's thin atmosphere.
More names are yet to come, and of course, the future holds even more discoveries that will need names. Keep studying and supporting science and who knows? Maybe some day, one of them will be named after you!
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Melanie R. Meadors is an author of fantasy where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She has edited two upcoming genre anthologies, MECH: Age of Steel and HATH NO FURY, and is the science and pop culture blogger at The Once and Future Podcast. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.