Star Trek Makes Its Mark On Pluto’s Moon Charon

Pluto’s largest moon Charon is captured glowing in “Plutoshine” in this photo taken by New Horizon in 2015. Because sunlight is weak at Pluto’s distance, the photo looks pixelated. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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
The areas shown in purple on Pluto are named for named for planetary and asteroid-exploring spacecraft and include Voyager, Pioneer, Viking and Haybusa. There are also references to characters in books by J.R.R. Tolkien and American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft as well as to famous folks associated with the discovery of Pluto. Click for a high resolution map. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

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.

Suggested names from the public and others for features on Pluto’s moon Charon includes fictional characters from Star Trek and references to Macross (sci-fi anime), Nasreddin (an Islamic trickster character), Gallifrey (from Doctor Who) and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Credit: NASA/ JHUAPL/SwRI

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!

I’ve labeled several features in this high resolution photo of Charon which have been proposed and may be approved soon by the IAU. You’ve got to hand it to the namers with their pairing of the bright Skywalker Crater with the darker Vader. Click for a bigger image and compare to the map. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

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.

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