Astronomy

Pluto's Features Get Official Names

Remember Pluto? Our distant solar system cousin got bumped from the ranks of the planets back in 2006. But now, the same agency that kicked Pluto down a notch is finally showing it some love. The features of our favorite dwarf planet finally have some names, and they're pretty cool, too.

Name Game

The Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has officially approved the names of 14 features on the surface of Pluto. Some of these were suggested by the public.

  • Tombaugh Regio: In honor of Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997), the U.S. astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930 from Lowell Observatory in Arizona.
  • Burney Crater: In honor of Venetia Burney (1918-2009), who suggested the name "Pluto" as an 11-year-old schoolgirl. Later in life she taught mathematics and economics.
  • Sputnik Planitia: A large plain named after Sputnik 1, the first space satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.
  • Tenzing Montes and Hillary Montes: Naturally, these are mountain ranges honoring Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986) and Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008), the Indian/Nepali Sherpa and New Zealand mountaineer who were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest and return safely.
  • Al-Idrisi Montes: In honor of 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: This is 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: Named for the powerful, eight-legged horse of Norse mythology that carried the god Odin into the underworld.
  • Virgil Fossae: Honoring Virgil, one of the greatest Roman poets and Dante's fictional guide through hell and purgatory in the Divine Comedy.
  • Adlivun Cavus: A deep depression named for Adlivun, the underworld in Inuit mythology.
  • Hayabusa Terra: A large land mass saluting the Japanese spacecraft and mission (2003-2010) that returned the first asteroid sample.
  • Voyager Terra: In honor of 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, carrying the sweet music of Chuck Berry to any aliens who want to listen.
  • Tartarus Dorsa: A ridge named for Tartarus, the deepest, darkest pit of the underworld in Greek mythology.
  • Elliot Crater: In honor of 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.

Sadly, our suggestion of the Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho Memorial Crater went unheeded.

What We Learned from the Pluto Flyby

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Written by Ben Bowman September 7, 2017