Spaceflight Insider

Sci-Fi names given to features on Pluto and Charon

Informal Names for Features on Pluto

Map of Pluto showing regions annotated with unofficial names. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

Names of characters, vehicles, and places from popular science fiction franchises are informally being given to features on Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, by the New Horizons team. Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Lord of the Rings, Robotech, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and classical mythology are all represented in monikers chosen for craters on Charon.

The New Horizons team began selecting the names at the time of the July 14 Pluto system flyby from a database containing thousands of potential names submitted by participants in this spring’s “Our Pluto” project, co-sponsored by the mission and by the SETI Institute.

Located at the “Our Pluto” website, the campaign sought names for features on Pluto and its moons from the public in a variety of categories.

Each of the system’s six worlds was given a set of naming categories and a list of names in each category. Participants could also add choices of their own if those were not on the list.

Charon’s categories included fictional explorers, locations, and vessels as well as authors, artists, and directors of fictional settings.

The New Horizons team selected the names that received the most votes for features on these remote worlds and has now released maps that refer to craters, mountains, and regions on Pluto and Charon using these selections. As is fitting, dark spots are being named for underworld creatures.

Charon now has features in its northern region that are strong with the force, as they are named Skywalker and Princess Leia – and there is even a Vader Crater.

Informal Names for Features on Charon.

Map of Charon showing regions annotated with unofficial names. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

Star Trek characters James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Sulu, and Uhura also have craters on Charon’s western side bearing their names, all in a region named Vulcan Planum, after Spock’s home world.

Pluto’s largest moon’s dark north pole has been dubbed Mordor Macula for the evil region Mordor in the J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series.

Dr. Who is honored with a Tardis Chasma, named for its protagonist’s time and space travel machine, and a Gallifrey Macula honoring the home planet of its Time Lords.

Robotech (or rather the Macross portion of it), a popular 1980s Japanese anime series created by Shōji Kawamori, is also recognized with the naming of Macross Chasma.

There is also a Nemo Crater named for the submarine captain in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, an Alice Crater for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a Ripley Crater for Ellen Ripley of the movie Alien, and a Nostromos Chasma named for the ship that she served on.

Middle Eastern legend Hoca Nasreddin is honored with a Nasreddin Crater, while a large chasm on the eastern side is called Argo after the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts of Greek mythology.

Serenity Chasma is named for the spaceship in the Firefly TV series, while Kayuga-hime Crater honors a baby who in Japanese folklore was born on the Moon but lived among humans.

Most of the named regions on Charon are concentrated in one area, the only area for which New Horizons has sent back high-resolution images to date.

Annotated Close-up of Sputnik Planum.

Annotated close-up of Sputnik Planum. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

Charon’s mountains include a Clarke Mons for author Arthur C. Clarke, a Kubrick Mons for the director of the classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a Butler Mons for writer Octavia E. Butler, who wrote the Xenogenesis trilogy.

Features on Pluto are mostly named after real, historic explorers; however, two dark spots bear the names of fictional monsters – one for Balrog in Lord of the Rings, and the other for Cthulhu, an evil god created by Lovecraft.

Pluto’s most famous region, popularly known as “the heart”, has been dubbed Tombaugh Regio in honor of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.

“Our Pluto” used six themes for Pluto’s features: space missions and spacecraft, scientists and engineers, historic explorers, underworld beings, underworld locations, and mythical characters who visited the underworld.

Within Tombaugh Regio is Sputnik Planum, named for the former Soviet Union’s Sputnik, which became the first human-built vessel to travel into space back in 1957.

Also within Tombaugh Regio are features named for Challenger and Columbia – space shuttles lost in 1986 and 2003, respectively.

Other space missions given names on Pluto include Viking, Pioneer, Voyager, Venera (after a Soviet spacecraft that flew by Venus), and Hayabusa (a Japanese mission that returned samples of an asteroid to Earth five years ago).

Pluto’s mountain ranges are named after Tenzig Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the first people to ever successfully climb Mount Everest, in 1953.

A cliff on Pluto’s surface is named for French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

West of Tombaugh Regio is Lowell Regio honoring Percival Lowell, the astronomer who began the search for a planet beyond Neptune and built the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Distinct naming themes have also been chosen for Pluto’s small moons: deities of the night for Nix; mythological snakes and dragons for Hydra; dogs from history, mythology and literature for Kerberos; and river deities for Styx.

With 95 percent of the data collected during New Horizons’ flyby still on the spacecraft, new features will continue to be discovered on these geologically complex worlds for about 15 months.

These informal names will be submitted to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which traditionally has presided over the naming of celestial bodies and their features, for formal approval.

One finding at Pluto may sound like science fiction but is, actually, scientific fact. At his first post-encounter public talk, given at New York City’s Intrepid Museum July 26, principal investigator Alan Stern noted that Pluto may harbor a subsurface ocean of liquid water – the essential ingredient for life as we know it.

Asked whether Pluto has the necessary ingredients to support microbial life, Stern responded, “I think it’s a good candidate. Ask me again in a year.”



Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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