Pluto Gets Its First Official Names

Pluto’s first official surface-feature names are marked on this map, compiled from images and data gathered by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its flight through the Pluto system in 2015.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Ross Beyer

No more pussyfooting around. It’s official: Pluto has 14 new place names. Most we suspected would be there, but a few are new. Pluto’s “heart” now bears the name of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. Venetia Burney, the British schoolgirl who in 1930 suggested the name “Pluto,” Roman god of the underworld, for Tombaugh’s newly-discovered planet, got a substantial crater. I was delighted to see the venerable Voyager spacecraft, both launched in 1977, commemorated with a nice spread of frozen plains.


This latest Pluto flyover using New Horizon photos begins over the highlands to the southwest of the great expanse of nitrogen ice plain named Sputnik Planitia. The viewer first passes over the western margin of Sputnik, where it borders the dark, cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula, with the blocky mountain ranges located within the planitia seen on the right. The tour moves north past the rugged and fractured highlands of Voyager Terra and then turns southward over Pioneer Terra, which exhibits deep and wide pits, before concluding over the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa in the far east of the encounter hemisphere. The topographic relief is exaggerated by a factor of 2 to 3 in these movies to emphasize topography; the surface colors have also been enhanced to bring out detail.

These and other names were approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies and their surface features. The names were proposed by NASA’s New Horizons team following the first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The New Horizons science team had been using these and other place names informally to describe the many regions, mountain ranges, plains, valleys and craters discovered during the first close-up look at the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

“The approved designations honor many people and space missions who paved the way for the historic exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the farthest worlds ever explored,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator.

Here’s who’s who on the dwarf planet these days:

Tombaugh Regio honors Clyde Tombaugh (1906–1997), the U.S. astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930 from Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

A studio portrait photograph of Venetia Burney, aged 11, around the time she named the dwarf-planet, Pluto. Credit: J. Weston & Son Photographers, Eastbourne, Brighton in England, UK.

Burney crater honors Venetia Burney (1918-2009), who as an 11-year-old schoolgirl suggested the name “Pluto” for Clyde Tombaugh’s newly discovered planet. Later in life she taught mathematics and economics.

Sputnik Planitia is a large plain named for Sputnik 1, the first space satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.

Tenzing Montes and Hillary Montes are mountain ranges honoring Tenzing Norgay (1914–1986) and Sir Edmund Hillary (1919–2008), the Indian/Nepali Sherpa and New Zealand mountaineer were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest and return safely.

Al-Idrisi Montes honors Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi (1100–1165/66), a noted Arab mapmaker and geographer whose landmark work of medieval geography is sometimes translated as “The Pleasure of Him Who Longs to Cross the Horizons.”

Djanggawul Fossae defines a network of long, narrow depressions named for the Djanggawuls, three ancestral beings in indigenous Australian mythology who traveled between the island of the dead and Australia, creating the landscape and filling it with vegetation.

Sleipnir Fossa is named for the powerful, eight-legged horse of Norse mythology that carried the god Odin into the underworld.

Virgil Fossae honors Virgil, one of the greatest Roman poets and Dante’s fictional guide through hell and purgatory in the Divine Comedy.

Adlivun Cavus is a deep depression named for Adlivun, the underworld in Inuit mythology.

Hayabusa Terra is a large land mass saluting the Japanese spacecraft and mission (2003-2010) that performed the first asteroid sample return.

Voyager Terra honors the pair of NASA spacecraft, launched in 1977, that performed the first “grand tour” of all four giant planets. The Voyager spacecraft are now probing the boundary between the Sun and interstellar space.

Tartarus Dorsa is a ridge named for Tartarus, the deepest, darkest pit of the underworld in Greek mythology.

Elliot crater recognizes James Elliot (1943-2011), an MIT researcher who pioneered the use of stellar occultations to study the solar system – leading to discoveries such as the rings of Uranus and the first detection of Pluto’s thin atmosphere.

(From a NASA press release)

2 Responses

  1. Troy

    They really need to honor Alan Stern. That guy has some pure grit to pull off New Horizons. (As far as I know) James Christy doesn’t have a feature named on Charon, also a huge oversight.

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