Our real-life masters of the Universe have given the go-ahead for features on a distant moon to be named after Doctor Who, Star Trek and Star Wars plus other famous explorers and characters from science fiction on TV, movies and in literature.
It means there will soon be a Tardis and a Gallifrey in our Solar System, on the surface of Pluto’s largest satellite Charon.
In July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons robotic probe flew past Pluto giving us our first close look a this remote former planet and its five moons. The resulting images were stunningly detailed.
As extraordinary as the features on Pluto, which included a giant frozen heart above an ocean, were those on its most significant moon, Charon, revealing a tortured cratered surface encircled by a mysterious ridge and a strange red dusting.
Following the flyby, a campaign was launched inviting the public to suggest names for the features on Pluto, Charon and the smaller satellites Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, according to certain themes set out by an official working group.
Now the International Astronomical Union, which is the official organisation regulating the classification and naming of bodies and features in space, has approved the final categories for the names.
It means that the New Horizons team can formally put forward the most popular suggestions from the public and other sources, which they had already unofficially added to the first maps of Pluto and the worlds in its domain.
Thousands of names were proposed by members of the public who responded enthusiastically to the challenge.
The IAU, working with the New Horizons team, has now agreed a final set of themes for the six worlds. Ironically, it was the IAU that relegated Pluto from planet to the lower division of dwarf planet in 2006.
For Pluto, which is 2,374 km wide (1475 miles), the agreed themes are:
- Gods, goddesses, and other beings associated with the Underworld from mythology, folklore and literature;
- Names for the Underworld and for Underworld locales from mythology, folklore and literature;
- Heroes and other explorers of the Underworld;
- Scientists and engineers associated with Pluto and the Kuiper Belt (the zone of icy bodies in the outer Solar System);
- Pioneering space missions and spacecraft;
- Historic pioneers who crossed new horizons in the exploration of the Earth, sea and sky.
For Charon, the final themes are:
- Destinations and milestones of fictional space and other exploration;
- Fictional and mythological vessels of space and other exploration;
- Fictional and mythological voyagers, travellers and explorers;
- Authors and artists associated with space exploration, especially Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.
For Styx, features will be named after river gods; for Nix, they will be deities of the night; Kerberos will have dogs from literature, mythology and history; and Hydra’s features will be named for legendary serpents and dragons.
For Pluto, with its vast nitrogen glacier as well as ice mountains, canyons, cliffs, craters, several features will be named after important spacecraft, including two hills called Challenger Colles and Columbia Colles in memory of the two space shuttles in which 14 astronauts perished.
A large crater is to be called Burney, after 11-year-old English girl Venetia Burney who named Pluto following its discovery in 1930. Two mountain ranges will be named after Sir Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who first climbed Everest in 1952.
On Charon, a dark region is being called Gallifrey Macula, after the titular Time Lord’s home planet in Doctor Who. And a neighbouring rift becomes Tardis Chasma in honour of his blue flying machine which got stuck in the form of an old British police box.
A large plain on Charon has been labelled Vulcan Planum, and craters within it given the names Kirk, Spock, Sulu and Uhura, from Star Trek.
Other craters on Charon are now called Skywalker, (Leia) Organa and Vader after leading characters in Star Wars, while another has the name Ripley, from Alien. Darth Vader’s crater is rather fittingly darker than its neighbours.
The IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature must now formally ratify the names put forward by the New Horizons team following the public contest.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, commented: “I’m very happy with both the process and partnership that New Horizons and the IAU undertook that led to wonderful, inspiring, and engaging naming themes for surface features on Pluto and its moons.”
Fans of the TV Time Lord can enjoy a Doctor Who story that a professional astronomer wrote to help explain a major cosmic discovery.