The SETI Institute has revealed its list of proposed names for the features of Pluto and its moons, and it is a spectacular document. The announcement comes just as NASA's New Horizons mission begins its first fly-by of the dwarf planet, which we will provide us with high-resolution maps of the planetary system.
Some say humanity's greatest drive is the desire to discover, to explore new places, "to boldly go." Perhaps its second-greatest drive, then, is to name everything we can see once we get there. Take the SETI Institute's recently unveiled list, for example.
As NASA's New Horizons spacecraft prepares to enter the flyby portion of its mission to Pluto, team member and SETI associate Mark Showalter has publicly released the final contenders of names to be associated with the mountains, valleys and craters we expect to find. Though he and his team originally seeded the list with ideas taken from both science and fiction, write-in nominations were encouraged. In the end, the document is spectacular reading material that demonstrates the breadth of human imagination and achievement while tapping into nostalgia, mythology, tragedy and triumph.
Showalter's list is divided into six main categories - one each for Pluto and its moons, Charon, Styx, Nyx, Kerberos, and Hydra - and from there into sub-categories of themes, such as fictional space ships, scientists, famous dogs, etc.
Topping the list of popular names were the crew of the original star ship Enterprise - mountains and gorges of Charon may bear the names of Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock, and maybe even Uhura or Sulu. Star Wars characters had quite a few votes, as well. Also in the theme of "Fictional Explorers and Adventurers" is Dorothy, who travelled to Oz and back.
Dorothy's little dog, Toto, is a contender in the category of "Famous Dogs," which may populate the map of Kerberos. Also on that list was Laika, canine cosmonaut and first animal to orbit the Earth.
It is hardly a secret that nomenclature is the great bridge between laymen and scientists - everyone can appreciate a good name. Adorabilis was a popular story several weeks back; more recently there was the "Hoff" crab. In fact, several years ago a similar but smaller poll was put together to find names for Pluto's moons. Hopefully this list contributes to a greater interest in astronomy among the general public.
Douglas Adams topped the list of "Authors, Artists, and Directors." Adams, whose Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most beloved science fiction novels of all time, passed away in 2001. Also in that category are director Stanley Kubrick, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Hieronymus Bosch, a Dutch painter who specialized in exquisitely detailed depictions of the underworld.
Firefly's Serenity and Doctor Who's Tardis were tops in the "Fictional Vessels" category - followed closely by Alien's Nostromo, which is hardly the only horror reference on the list.
Notable absences include the heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasies. Surely Frodo and Sam count among travellers to the underworld? Other creatures and locales from his books make the list - the Desolation of Smaug could be a pretty epic name for a volcanic plateau.
I'll open this up to our readers. Read this list - what is your favorite entry? Who is missing?