Sunday, September 6, 2015

Mordor Macula, Vader Crater, Nostromo Chasma

By Jean E. Lane

New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto and Charon, its largest moon provided us with many incredible images. But the highly detailed images gave the New Horizons team an unanticipated problem: What do they call all those mountain ranges, plains, and craters?

What happens next is that the team intends to submit them to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), who is the official governing body for names of celestial objects. Here’s what’s currently being proposed to the committee; how about choosing names from Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Firefly, Alien, and Lord of the Rings? The New Horizons team actually asked for submissions from the public, and they were only too happy to oblige. 

Since Pluto was named after a god of the underworld, the names must be drawn from underworld mythology. NASA offered the Cthulu regio (a large region with color variances). Also chosen was the name Balrog macula (meaning dark spot) which honored Lovercraft’s dark god and the underground demons from stories by J.R.R. Tolkein. 

All that’s wonderful news, but it’s Charon, Pluto’s moon, and the IAU rules permit names that reference “destinations and milestones of fictional space” as well as fictional spaceships and travelers. This notion grabbed the imaginations of many space fans, and their thoughts went directly to the iconic science fiction shows and movies that they revere.  

Thus, the suggestions were presented, and the unofficial names, of craters are Vader, Skywalker and Leia Organa. For the plains they propose names of Spock, Kirk, Sulu, and Uhura, which would dot the Vulcan Planum. How about the Tardis chasma that crosses the Gallifrey macula?  This name, of course is in reference to The Doctor’s (Doctor Who) vessel and planet. It also has been proposed that names from Alien, such as Ripley crater and Nostromo chasma, would be excellent choices. The name Serenity chasma in respect for Firefly also has a chance to become a real place on Charon. There’s room for one from Lord of the Rings, the giant Mordor macula at Charon’s North Pole.

Although they are nevertheless provisional, “We still have a decent chance of getting these names approved,” stated New Horizons planetary scientist Mark Showalter.  After all, the IAU has previously approved features on Saturn’s moon, Titan, named Frodo and Bilbo, and the first landing site on Mars is now called Bradbury’s Landing!

Ah, this is news that stirs the creative abyss of a science fiction or science “faction” heart!

References: NASA, The Planetary Society,, International Astronomical Union, EarthSky, Washington Post, and National Geographic

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