Naming the Moons of Pluto

[ 1 ] Comment

The naming of a moon is a rare privilege for any astronomer. Fewer than 200 moons have been discovered orbiting the Solar System’s planets (dwarf or otherwise).

Over the centuries, the astronomical community has established standards for the naming of moons. Most names come from ancient mythologies. The moons of Uranus are the exception, with names coming primarily from the works of William Shakespeare.

These rules ensure that newly-discovered moons receive names that have already stood the test of time. The same names will still be in use centuries and even millennia from now. Whereas today’s literature might be long forgotten, we can be confident that future generations of astronomers (and maybe even astronauts) will still recall the stories from Mount Olympus and Stratford-upon-Avon.

I suspect these naming traditions did not arise by accident. For whatever reason, we humans seem to have a deep-seated, pre-scientific need to interpret the night sky in terms of stories. Naturally, we choose the big stories, involving grand themes, great powers and deep mysteries.

I was previously involved in the naming of three moons: Pan at Saturn, plus Mab and Cupid at Uranus. In each case, the process was simple and straightforward. We pulled out our dusty old copies of Bullfinch’s Mythology or the Riverside Shakespeare and started browsing. (In each case, I also experienced a wistful regret that I had not spent more time studying literature in college, back when I still had the opportunity.)

When we announced the discoveries of Pluto’s fourth and fifth moons, it became clear to me that the naming process might have to be different. This time, I received hundreds of spontaneous, unsolicited suggestions. I suspect that some of the world’s affection for Pluto comes from its so-called “demotion” to dwarf planet status. Perhaps it is also because the names of Pluto’s moons are all associated with Hades and the Underworld, the stuff of so many of our most primal fears. Whatever the reason, the discovery team has decided that it would be unfair to keep the naming process to ourselves.

Starting today, we are trying something new. We are asking the public to help us name the moons. Visit plutorocks.seti.org and tell us what you think. We have seeded the ballot with a few names, or you can propose your own. The names will still have to be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but we will use your votes to help us decide the names we propose.

Please join us in adding the next chapter to the story of Pluto.

About Mark Showalter

Planetary astronomer Mark Showalter studies the dynamics of rings and small moons in the Solar System. Known for his persistence in planetary image analysis, Mark's early work with Voyager data led to the discoveries of Jupiter's faint, outer "gossamer" rings and Saturn's tiny ring-moon, Pan. His work with the Hubble Space Telescope starting in 2003 has led to the discoveries of "Mab" and "Cupid," small moons of Uranus now named after characters from Shakespeare's plays. His work also revealed two faint outer rings of dust encircling the planet. In 2011, Mark initiated a Hubble observing program focused on Pluto, which has led to the discoveries of two tiny moons. Their names, "Kerberos" and "Styx", were selected through an international naming campaign. Most recently, Mark discovered the 14 known moon of Neptune, which is designated "S/2004 N 1" until its permanent name can be selected. He is a co-investigator on NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn and its New Horizons mission to Pluto.

One Response to Naming the Moons of Pluto

  1. […] [el creador de Star Trek] había leído los clásicos)”, escribió en tono humorístico en su blog Mark Showalter, científico del Instituto SETI. “Gracias a William Shatner por la sugerencia” Sin […]