For millennia, we’ve inscribed our stories on the canvas of the sky, immortalizing our heroes, gods and monsters in those twinkling stars and meandering planets.
Soon, Pluto and its five enigmatic moons will become the newest tablets for our Earthly tales. And this time, if scientists get their way, some of popular culture’s most beloved characters will take their places among the stars.
Next week, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly through the Pluto system and reveal its worlds in startling detail (already, the images are more than intriguing). But the fun really begins once those alien surfaces are unveiled. Not only will scientists be working to understand the complexities of what they’re seeing – they’ll need a way to name all the features that have appeared.
Today, New Horizons team member Mark Showalter submitted a proposed list of names for those features to the International Astronomical Union, which is responsible for the naming of things in the solar system.
A few months ago, Showalter, who’s at the SETI Institute, had opened up the process to a popular vote. He and his colleagues seeded a ballot with famous explorers and scientists, characters from mythology, and references to science fiction; and, as was the case when a similar process led to the naming of Pluto’s two smallest moons, the team considered write-in votes as well (“Sputnik,” which made the final list, was a write-in).
Then, based on the thousands and thousands of votes cast, Showalter and his colleagues drew up a list to send to the IAU. You can see the whole thing here – it’s extensive, and studded with wonderful people, characters and mythologies from all corners of planet Earth. Among them are Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock, Star Wars’ Skywalker and Leia, and Dorothy Gale, who ventured to the land of Oz (and helped name this blog). Dorothy’s dog Toto is on the list, too.
Showalter says he’s particularly excited by the list of historic explorers, which includes Isabella Bird, Tenzing Norgay, and Muhammad al-Idrisi, whose geographical compendium The Pleasure of Him Who Longs to Cross the Horizons is almost too perfectly named. Showalter also particularly likes Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse from Norse mythology that was also the result of a write-in vote.
“I had not realized how many stories there are about visiting the Underworld, spanning all the world’s cultures,” he says.
Yes, just when we thought the Pluto system couldn’t get any cooler, scientists had to go and propose a whole list of compelling, beautiful names for the features marking the planet and its moons.