As we explore the surface of Pluto and its biggest moon Charon, the New Horizons Team has now encountered a very exciting dilemma. What do we name these geographic features?
The International Astronomical Union is in charge of naming celestial objects. Their general rule is that the names should revolve around a specific theme.
In the case of Pluto all the names should be influenced by the underworld. However, NASA’s suggestions should certainly please many sci-fi fans.
There are two places where NASA took inspiration from the dark worlds of H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R Tolkien. Their suggestions are the Cthulu Regio and the Balrog macula.
A regio is an area that’s a different color from the rest of the surface. (The now famous heart on Pluto is being called the Tombaugh Regio, named after the planet’s discoverer, Clyde Tombough.) Maculae are dark spots.
However, with Pluto’s moon Charon, the plethora of names starts to get really nerdy. According to the IAU, naming parts of Charon include “destinations and milestones of fictional space.”
Therefore, a dark crater on Charon is nicknamed Vader with two other craters being called Skywalker and Leia Organa.
For ‘Star Trek’ fans, Charon now has a Vulcan plane with some of its craters being called Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Sulu.
There’s also the Tardis Chasma (a steep, long depression) and the Gallifrey macula. We’ve got a Nostromo chasma and the Ripley crater. Plus, a macula on Charon’s north pole is being called Mordor.
And even NASA appreciates the one season of ‘Firefly’ by nicknaming one chasma Serenity.
New Horizons planetary scientist Mark Showalter feels very confident the IAU will make these names official.
“The IAU tends to favor names that have been around for a while, but ‘Star Trek’ is almost 50 years old now and ‘Star Wars’ is about 40 years old.”
So even when the time comes where the Earth gets absorbed by the Sun, it’s nice to know that many of these pop culture references will live on for a little while longer.