A planetary feature by any other name ...

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Thursday, March 8, 2007
Hubert Curien (1924–2005) ESA

Perhaps as long as humans have had language, we've been naming stuff after ourselves. It's a way of conferring immortality.

This holds true for the solar system at large. Major craters on the Moon, deep valleys on Mars, towering volcanoes on Venus — all have names. Famous deceased scientists abound, as do deities from a multitude of world cultures. Some heavenly bodies have naming themes assigned to them. Venus, not surprisingly, is littered with goddesses.

Naming the features of moons and planets is international and highly rational. There's a special group of people who adjudicate the namings called the International Astronomical Union Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN). A number of smaller "task groups" supervise the naming of new features on specific planets, moons, and asteroids.

This week, the European Space Agency announced a new naming. The site on Titan where the Huygens lander touched down will, after a naming ceremony March 14, be called the Hubert Curien Memorial Station.

Curien — scientist, diplomat, institution-builder, science minister, and French resistance fighter in World War II — was a founding father of European space science. He was French Minister of Research and Space under four prime ministers. Among his many other achievements was helping to launch the Ariane rocket program, which provided Europe with independent access to space. Curien also successfully  promoted the idea of uniting Europe through scientific cooperation.

It's dramatic to name things after gods, goddesses, and heroes. But it's the determined bureaucrats — those invisible men and women with vision who work behind the scenes pushing the paper and raising the funds — who take us to the stars.

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