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Mapping Pluto and Charon

Before we go any further, just take a moment to look at the title of this post again… “Mapping Pluto and Charon”… isn’t that crazy?? A couple of weeks ago both Pluto and Charon were just points of light in the sky, at best tiny discs on images taken by the Hubble telescope. Now we have flown a space-probe past them, and seen them in sufficient detail to allow maps of their surfaces to be drawn. That’s insane..!

But even better, many of the features shown on those maps have now been given (provisional) names by the New Horizons team, with many more names to follow. Overnight Pluto and Charon have gone from being just (just! ha!!) visually exciting but almost cool beyond words thanks to the names chosen by the New Horizons team, names which were suggested by members of the public.

There’s a full list of all the names given to features so far here…

Pluto Name Bank Proposal

…but basically the names given to features on Pluto, Charon and its other moons all follow certain themes. Here are the themes, and some of my favourite names plucked from their lists of features on the maps…


* Important spacecraft from the history of spaceflight: Challenger; Voyager.

* Scientists and Engineers: Burney (not a scientist or an engineer, but the young girl who suggested Pluto’s name after it was discovered, so only fair, I say!)

* Historic Explorers: Norgay

* Underworld Beings:Cthulhu; Balrog (VERY cool!)

* “Underworlds and Underworld locales”: Tartarus

* Underworld Travellers: Heracles.



CHARON: ( aka “ComicCon Moon” from now on… )

* Fictional Explorers and Travellers (the most fun theme, they might just have well have called it “Fave sci-fi characters”!): Kirk, Spock, Skywalker, Leia. Solo, Vader, Dorothy (Wizard of Oz)

* Fictional Origins and Destinations (aka “Fave place on a sci fi story!): Vulcan (that’s a huge surprise, isn’t it? Not.), Shire, Mordor, Tatooine, Hoth, Galifrey (YES!!!! YES!!!!!!!!!!!!! GALLIFREY FALLS NO MORE!!!!!), Krypton.

* Fictional Vessels (aka coolest spaceships from sci fi!): Serenity (oh… sniff…!!!), TARDIS (get IN there!!!), Nostromo (come on… you know this one… the butt-ugly mining ship from Alien? There you go…), (strangely, no “Enterprise” here… odd)

* Exploration Authors, Directors and Artists: D Adams (as in Douglas “Hitch-hikers Guide” Adams), Clarke (as in Arthur C).



* River Gods: Hapi (named after the Pharell Williams song… ok, no, not really…)


* Deities of The Night: Incubus, Succubus (ok, junior school teachers, try explaining those in class…)


* Dogs from History, Literature and Mythology: Laika (long, LONG overdue!!!!!), Toto (Dorothy’s dog, thus ensuring 99% of visitors to Kerberos in the future will say “I don’t think we’re on Earth any more, Toto…” to their mate after stepping off the shuttle, convinced they’re the first person ever to think of it…)


* Legendary Serpents and Dragons: Smaug (again, long overdue, and some enterprising colonists or settlers will surely arrange some rocks into Smaug’s shape in the future)

…and many, many more to come!

Seriously, well done New Horizons team for choosing those names, and for showing yet again just how in touch they are with the general public following the mission  “out here” . Some dusty fuddy-duddies might moan that the names of some features, especially those on Charon, are too geeky and sci fi, but (loud raspberry noise) to them, those are all good, honourable names, the names of people, places and vessels which have inspired and excited generations of people to follow space exploration or follow careers in it. To know that there are craters called Kirk and Spock on Pluto is quite moving, and I am obviously thrilled to bits that The Doctor’s home planet and spaceship have been honoured, too.

And as for naming a feature on Charon after Laika… thank you, just thank you.

Some of you reading this are probably thinking “What’s the point? No-one will go there for decades, if not centuries!” Well, for one thing, naming the features on Pluto and its moons is just a practical thing for the New Horizons team to do – they can’t just go on talking about “that crater up there, near the bigger one, just below the valley…” forever. they need to be able to talk about local landmarks and features and have everyone know which one they’re referring to right away. And also, naming things on a map, if it’s of a coastline, a continent, a moon or a whole planet – makes it more real to us as human beings, and helps us get our bearings. If that wasn’t the case, why would we bother naming the spiral arms of our own galaxy, or even naming star clusters, nebulae and galaxies in the depths of space? It’s just what we do, and will always do. One day astronauts standing on Mars will christen the largest rocks and boulders scattered around their landing site, just as astronomers will one day name the continents, mountain ranges and islands of planets and moons orbiting distant stars, to make them, just as the first people to set foot on those exotic worlds will give names to the new constellations glittering above their settlements after their alien sun has set.

Time to update a certain picture, I think…!

collage pluto mao

Look what science, dreams and determination did, working together…:-)

NOTE: the maps used in this blog post originally appeared in this feature on Buzzfeed

One Response

  1. […] ein MIT Release mit Spekulationen über einen Pluto-Ozean und Artikel hier und hier. [5:35 […]

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