Naming Pluto

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Image credit: NASA-JHU APL/New Horizons

Update 2015/04/14! The voting is extended to April 24th. Here’s your chance!

Pluto – 113 days and counting as of 2015/03/23. The New Horizons spacecraft flies close by Pluto this July 14th—the first encounter in history and probably the last in your lifetime.

Looking for a link to the blessed event, I ran across this site, http://www.ourpluto.org, describing itself as a public campaign to name the surface features on Pluto and Charon. “Working with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the New Horizons team plans to assign names to the features on the maps of Pluto and its large moon Charon, once we have seen them in sharp detail this summer. At this site, you can suggest your ideas for names and vote for your favorites. The team will use your best ideas in their proposal to the IAU.”

In other words, you get to suggest names, but the IAU gets the last word, and if your proposed name doesn’t fit into its naming policy, out it goes.

Well, maybe that’s as it should be. We certainly don’t want corporate sponsors naming craters after automobiles, religious organizations naming mountains or valleys after holy names in the Quran or Bible, or politicians naming smoking fumaroles after themselves. What better way to handle it than let an international organization of astronomers fairly and impartially dictate the terms?

The only problem is that the IAU rules for naming features on solar system bodies seem to preclude naming anything for the spacecraft or mission that discovered those features in the first place.

The only exception I know is Valles Marineris (Mariner Valley) on Mars, named after the Mariner 9 Mars orbiter that discovered it. This instance seems to have irked the IAU because you’ll have a hard time finding the names of spacecraft for features on any other planets or their satellites since then. Not Viking or Voyager or Cassini or Galileo or MESSENGER, or apparently now, New Horizons. Hardly a valley, scarp, crater, hollow, chasm, knob, ridge or volcano has been named for the spacecraft or mission that found it.

There are plenty of deceased astronomer names plastered over those terrains, gods and goddesses, fictional characters, writers, and other hoi polloi, but exceedingly rarely, or maybe never, will you find the name of a spacecraft or mission or its engineers or scientists.

To qualify, if you’re a person, you have to be both famous and dead. This precludes having anything you’ve discovered being named after you at the time of discovery. Maybe you’ll get a tiny crater fifty years from now if there’s anything left over, but certainly nothing big. Perhaps this is as it should be, but this exclusion of mission names and the names of the scientists and engineers that run them violates, in spirit at least, the moral dictum “You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.”

A literally down-to-earth historical precedent is seen in the many geographical features on earth named for their discoverers. Why should this not also be the case for the solar system?

Check it out. Go to http://www.ourpluto.org and nominate a name for a Pluto feature (voting closes on April 7th), but at the same time notice the categories of names that the IAU will allow, and note that you won’t find New Horizons or any of its live participants in any of the “allowed” themes. Go ahead and suggest names, but please also entertain the question of why mission names are not allowed for the features they’ve discovered. And of course if you like the idea of something big on Pluto or Charon being named for the mission that brung us, the public, along on this long distance voyage of discovery, then certainly write it in.

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