Help name Pluto's features!

Posted by Korey Haynes
on Friday, March 20, 2015

The New Horizons team and SETI want your help to name the features soon to be revealed on Pluto and Charon.
With New Horizons speeding ever closer toward its July 14 close encounter with Pluto, astronomers are going to have unprecedented looks at the tiny planet’s thus far hidden features. And when they get their first close-up pictures, they’re going to want names for all the new discoveries. That’s where you come in.

The SETI institute unveiled today, where you can vote on names for the yet-undiscovered craters and ridges, peaks and valleys and rifts – and who knows what else we’ll find – of the most popular dwarf planet and its moon, Charon.

While the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has the ultimate say on all official naming decisions for celestial bodies in our solar system and beyond, they’ve taken suggestions in the past. It was just over 85 years ago, almost to the day, that Venetia Phair suggested the name “Pluto” for the then-newly discovered planet. Phair was only eleven years old at the time, but her well-connected grandfather passed her idea along to the right people, and a few months later, her choice of name was confirmed.

However, Pluto’s example aside, the IAU has been somewhat possessive about its naming rights, especially recently. Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, founded a company called Uwingu in 2012 whose goal is to raise money for space exploration and research. Their main funding source is to allow the public to purchase – for small amounts – naming “rights” to exoplanets and martian craters. Uwingu is careful to note that these would not be official names; that right still belongs to the IAU. Nonetheless, the IAU has issued multiple statements criticizing Uwingu’s funding plan, claiming such activities cause confusion and disorganization about space objects. But outside our solar system, common names abound. Of course the IAU recognizes NGC 6611. But most people are probably far quicker to recognize its completely unofficial name: the Eagle Nebula. The Crab Nebula (NGC 1952) and the Whirlpool Galaxy (NGC 5194) are only a few more examples out of many.

But this time, the IAU and the public seem aligned. The New Horizons team has worked with the IAU to establish a collection of themes, and lists of names associated with the themes. The broad themes are History of Exploration, Literature of Exploration, and Mythology of the Underworld. Within each of these lay smaller categories, like Historic Explorers, Fictional Vessels, and Travelers to the Underworld. There is even a simplified list so that young children can participate with ease. The specific names span cultures and generations, so you should find something that strikes your fancy.

After all the votes have been tallied, the New Horizons group will sort through the results and pass them on to the IAU who, as always, will have the final say in applying the names.

Voting ends on April 7, so go out and pick your favorite names! Come July, you could see them on a brand new map of Pluto.

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