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Mythology, science combine in place names on Pluto

Posted February 24

Spacecraft reaches view of Pluto

Planets, moons and other celestial bodies are named according to rules established by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Pluto did not have any rules for naming surface features because, until recently, none had been clearly seen. NASA’s New Horizons team changed that with a fly-by in 2015 which delivered the first close-up views of Pluto and its five moons.

New Horizons revealed a complex, relatively young surface covered with a vast nitrogen glacier as well as mountains, canyons and craters made of ice. This week, the IAU announced acceptance of naming themes for these features proposed by the mission team:

Pluto place names


  • Mythological beings associated with the underworld
    • Example: Djanggawul Depression, named for underworld traveler of aboriginal mythology
  • Underworld locations
    • Example: Tartarus Ridge, named for the underworld of Greek mythology
  • Scientists and engineers associated with Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
    • Example: Tombaugh Regio, a region named for Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s discoverer
  • Pioneering space missions and spacecraft
    • Example: Voyager Terra, a large land mass named for the interstellar mission
  • Historic pioneers who crossed new horizons in the exploration of the Earth, sea and sky
    • Example: Norgay Montes, a mountain named for the sherpa who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, was the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest

Charon place names

Charon (Pluto’s largest moon)

  • Dark Spots: Destinations and milestones of fictional space and other exploration
    • Examples: Gallifrey (Dr. Who), Mordor (Lord of the Rings)
  • Chasms: Fictional and mythological vessels of space and other exploration
    • Examples: Serenity Chasm (Firefly), Argo (Jason and the Argonauts)
  • Craters: Fictional and mythological voyagers, travelers and explorers
    • Examples: Leah Organa (Star Wars), Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)
  • Mountains: Authors and artists associated with space exploration, especially Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
    • Examples: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clark

Pluto’s smaller moons

  • Styx: River gods
  • Nix: Deities of the night
  • Kerberos: Dogs from literature, mythology and history
  • Hydra: Legendary serpents and dragons

“Imagine the thrill of seeing your name suggestion on a future map of Pluto and its moons,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington.

The IAU also endorsed the NASA/New Horizons mission team-led “Our Pluto” campaign which completed a survey gathering public suggestions for naming.

“We look forward to the next step – submitting actual feature names for approval,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, Colo.


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