Did you ever wonder how the folks at NASA come up with the mission names, spacecraft names and other monikers for the work they do? Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were the names given to the missions that began the age of space exploration. The precursor to the International Space Station was Skylab because of the experiments it would conduct. Naming the missions and NASA programs was one thing, but now, with the New Horizons probe about to get historically close to Pluto, there are more names to be thought up.
If all goes as expected on the Pluto mission and fly-by, there should be several geographical features that need to be named. Mountains, hills, rivers, craters and other topography will have to be mapped and researchers need to be able to refer specifically to them when all of the photos and data are in. How do these names get decided?
The actual naming authority is the International Astronomical Union, or IAU, but a recent online effort by the SETI Institute called "OurPluto" drew tens of thousands of suggestions in online balloting and close to 15,000 write-in suggestions for names. Planetary scientist and SETI investigator Mark Showalter, was responsible for launching the campaign, which was very similar to an earlier process he was involved in that named the two moons of Pluto, Kerberos and Styx. "Pluto Rocks" also received several thousand suggestions for the names of the two moons that were discovered in 2011 and 2012, respectively, but the IAU went with the more traditional method of naming the moons after figures from ancient Greek and Roman mythology.
With excitement reaching a fever pitch over what the New Horizons Pluto fly-by will reveal, the name suggestions were, as expected, out of this world. In an interview with NBC News, Showalter reiterated that the IAU will have the final say on the names, but stated, "Since the public was so invested in the process, we thought it was appropriate to let the public know what we're proposing,"
It's possible that until final approval is given for the names of any features discovered, the New Horizons team might have to start using some of the suggestions on a temporary basis until the IAU makes their decisions. For now, the SETI proposal contains the following themes for Pluto and its moons:
Pluto: Names proposed included NASA missions and spacecraft or space engineers like Percival Lowell and Clyde Tombaugh who's work led to Pluto's discovery. Charon: It was Pluto's largest moon that drew some of the most popular suggestions, many from Star Trek fans, Star Wars fans and even Oz fans, with names that included Ohura, Spock, Vader, Leia, Dorothy and Toto. Styx: Named for the river of the underworld, suggestions for features here included river gods from many different myths. Nix: The darkest of the Plutonian Moons drew suggestions that echoed many of the gods and goddesses of the night from Scottish, Hindu and Mexican lore. Kerberos: Naturally, suggestions for this moon followed the dog theme, perhaps giving Toto another shot at being a namesake, should he lose out on Charon. Hydra: Dragons, snakes and sea serpents were among the choices for Hydra, evoking fire and water imagery.
While Juliet may have asked Romeo, "What's in a name?" for Pluto watchers, Trekkies, Star Wars fans and classics enthusiasts, the names matter very much.
I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.