Evocative, isn’t it? That’s Pluto’s largest moon Charon against a star field, illuminated by the faint light reflected from nearby Pluto. The right edge of the moon just catches the sunlight from the side and shows as a bright crescent. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was already about 100,000 miles (150,000 km) beyond Pluto when the image was taken on July 15, 2015.
In early 2015 the officer namer of things astronomical, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), endorsed the NASA-New Horizons led “Our Pluto” naming campaign, which allowed the public to participate in the exploration of Pluto by proposing names for surface features that were still awaiting discovery. For Charon, those feature themes were:
- Destinations and milestones of fictional space and other exploration
- Fictional and mythological vessels of space and other exploration
- Fictional and mythological voyagers, travellers and explorers
- Authors and artists associated with space exploration, especially Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
And for Pluto:
- Gods, goddesses and other beings associated with the underworld from mythology, folklore and literature
- Names for the underworld and for underworld locales from mythology, folklore and literature
- Heroes and other explorers of the underworld
- Scientists and engineers associated with Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
- Pioneering space missions and spacecraft
- Historic pioneers who crossed new horizons in the exploration of the Earth, sea and sky
This February, after some tweaking, the IAU formally approved the themes, which means the names associated with some of our favorite characters from Star Trek, Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who should soon be making a formal appearance on maps of Charon. Pluto will see its discoverer memorialized in the giant, heart-shaped Tombaugh Region (after Clyde Tombaugh) as well as in Burney Crater, named for Venetia Burney, the young girl in 1930 who named the then-new planet.
Charon may soon seen the names of key Stars Wars characters Kirk, Uhura, Spock and Sulu proposed for craters on a swath of rolling plains dubbed Vulcan Planum. Even Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker get craters!
Naming things is the first step in understanding them, and if the names are some of our favorite characters from literature and science, all the better. How fun it would be to one day hear a researcher describe how he found something “fascinating” in Spock.