The newly discovered mountains, valleys, and craters on Pluto’s surface need some names.
In the 86 years since Pluto's discovery, we have had no idea what it looked like; now NASA's New Horizons mission has graced the world with incredibly detailed images of the surface of Pluto and its moon Charon. These previously unknown surface features need to be named.
The New Horizons team has no shortage of potential options. In early 2015, the mission asked the world to submit names corresponding to specific thematic guidelines. The initial list of the most popular names was released earlier this month.
These names won't become official until they're ratified by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). In the meantime, the team has needed a way to refer to the various features they are studying. “We need names to call things,” Cathy Olkin, a New Horizons scientist who was part of the group in charge of assigning informal names, told BuzzFeed Science. “We are working with these data. You can’t just keep on saying, ‘Oh, that canyon up to the left.’”
Over the past couple of weeks, as new images have come in, the teams have compiled informal maps complete with preliminary names for both Pluto and Charon. BuzzFeed Science has obtained copies of these maps.
Though not officially approved by the IAU, the names on these maps are what will be submitted to the IAU for ratification, and they offer an early look at what official maps of Pluto and Charon may look like in the future.
Here's the full, zoomed-out map of Pluto:
Everyone knows what a crater is. Here’s what some of those other words mean: Cavus (deep-sided depression), Chasma (chasm), Colles (small knobs or hills), Dorsa (ridges), Fossa (long, narrow depression), Linea (elongated marking), Macula (dark spot), Mons (mountain), Montes (mountains), Planum (plateau or high plain), Regio (large bright or dark region), Terra (extensive land mass), Vallis (valley).
Here's a closer view of the left side of that map:
Here are two zoomed-in views of the Tombaugh Regio:
And here’s the right side of the map:
The names selected fall into four major categories: space missions and spacecraft; scientists and engineers; historic explorers; and underworld locales, beings, and travelers.
The names bring in suggestions and traditions from many cultures from all around the world.
The left side of Pluto’s now-famous “heart” is fittingly named after Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh. Venetia Burney, the young girl who named Pluto at age 11, also gets a shout-out in the form of a crater.
Space programs from around the world are well-represented, with features named after missions and spacecraft created by the United States, the former Soviet Union/Russia, China, Japan, India, Brazil, and Sweden.
The histories and mythologies used to name features are also remarkably inclusive. Pluto's map honors explorers ranging from Muhammad al-Idrisi, the Muslim explorer and mapmaker, to Kupe, a Polynesian explorer who discovered New Zealand and was later mythologized by Maori culture.
Underworld mythology also draws on cultures from all around the world: The Greeks, the Mayans, the Inuits, and African cultures, among others, are represented among the areas designated by underworld theme.
According to Mark Showalter, a scientist on the New Horizons team and a driving force behind the OurPluto campaign, exploration was an important theme for the New Horizons team. “Pluto is like the Mount Everest of solar system exploration,” he said. The team celebrated that view by naming the first two mountain groups discovered on Pluto after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first people to summit Everest.
And here's the map of Pluto's moon Charon:
Charon's naming scheme fell under four categories as well: fictional explorers and travelers; fictional origins and destinations; fictional vessels; and exploration authors, artists, and directors.
Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Star Trek all got their own little piece of Charon!
Showalter told BuzzFeed Charon is the first solar system body to have features named after geography and characters from both Star Wars and Star Trek. Darth Vader got a dark rimmed crater, while Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker both got lighter-rimmed craters.
Doctor Who is well-represented. Gallifrey, the home planet of the Time Lords in Doctor Who, is intersected, fittingly, by a chasm named Tardis, the Doctor's time machine and space ship.
On the Star Trek side of things, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Lt. Uhura, Lt. Sulu, and the Vulcans all get shout-outs in Charon.
“It shouldn’t be a big surprise to anybody that once we put [the fictional explorers and travelers theme] up for a vote that names like Kirk and Spock and Skywalker and Leia became popular names,” Showalter added. A quick glance at the map will show Lord of the Rings fans will not be disappointed, either.
Among many others, there are also references to Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Stanley Kubrick for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Douglas Adams for his book The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time.
These named regions remain informal, but the team is optimistic that their maps will be ratified.
“Everything is waiting approval,” Showalter told BuzzFeed Science, but “we are optimistic that the IAU will see things the way we do.” The team is proud of the fact that the names are drawn from people from around the world, and from many different cultures and backgrounds. Perhaps just as important to them, though, is honoring the work that came before them and that ultimately contributed to the mission’s success.
“We felt strongly as a mission team that we stood on the shoulders of giants,” Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, told BuzzFeed Science, and that they needed to “honor the missions and the engineers and scientists who figured out how to do space exploration, because we could have never pulled off New Horizons without their experience.”