Pluto: Naming features as New Horizons flies by.

Want to Name a Feature on Pluto?

Want to Name a Feature on Pluto?

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
March 23 2015 7:15 AM

Pluto Naming Rights

Pluto before and after
Artist's drawing (right) shows what may be seen when New Horizons flies by Pluto compared to the best images now (left).

Photo by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

In a few months, Pluto’s gonna get a lot less fuzzy.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Right now, the distant world is a scant three pixels across in the camera of the New Horizons space probe. But it’s fast approaching; New Horizons recently crossed the distance where it was closer to Pluto than the Earth is to the Sun. Given that Pluto is 40 times farther from the Sun than the Earth is, you can see that the probe is nearing the goal of its mission.

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Closest approach will be in mid-July 2015. A bit more than a month before then Pluto will be more than a dozen pixels wide in images. Still not much, but enough to start seeing major features, coloration or brightness differences from spot to spot on the surface. Closing in at 14 kilometers every second, Pluto will grow rapidly, and details will clear.

The transformation of Pluto from a fuzzy blob to a sharp and clear world will be so rapid, in fact, that there won’t be time to name all the new surface features seen. Thinking ahead, the scientists involved have decided to create a list of potential names for features not yet seen. That’s pretty clever, but what names should go on that Plutonic list?

That, it turns out, is up to you. Seriously. The New Horizons team, in coordination with the International Astronomical Union (the official keeper of cosmic names), has a website called Our Pluto where you can suggest names and vote for the ones you like.

The names fall under several themes, including explorers (real and fictional), the underworld (Pluto was, after all, the god of the underworld, and the moons are named after various related characters), scientists, engineers, starships and spaceships, and more. They make a special note: “We particularly welcome suggestions that come from the ancient past and from the world’s many diverse cultures.”

This is an interesting idea. It’s not a free-for-all, so that should prevent the usual irritating responses expected from the underbelly of the Internet, and in the end the names from the public are suggestions, not mandatory. But with the IAU involved, the ones chosen will eventually become official.

So here’s your chance to help name a feature on another world! Voting ends on April 7, so hurry. Orbital mechanics wait for no human.