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Pluto’s Surface Features Get Their First Official Names

The International Astronomical Union approved 14 dark and heroic names for the erstwhile planet

An image from the New Horizons satellite showing three officially named features on Pluto: Norgay Montes, Hillary Montes and Sputnik Planitia (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
smithsonian.com

It's been just over two years since New Horizons buzzed by Pluto, giving us our first close-up look at the dwarf planet's surface. Now, astronomers have finally assigned the first official names to more than a dozen geological features on this frosty world.

The naming process for objects in space is a complex. The group who discovered the object is bestowed the honor of giving it a name, which then undergoes a series of checks that ensures the final moniker is not offensive, repetitive or overly-silly. This lengthy process, which is regulated by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), is why names for Pluto's features are only just now getting approved. The 14 names released this week all fall under the themes drawn up by the IAU for each celestial body and surface feature type, reports Rae Paoletta for Gizmodo.

Keeping with its namesake, the ancient god of the underworld, most of Pluto's features are named after dark mythological and folk figures and places. For example, the name of a deep depression is Adlivun Cavus, after the underworld in Inuit mythology, while the ridge Tartarus Dorsa is named for the deep prison abyss in the Greek underworld. Other names are more heroic, such as Sleipnir Fossa, the eight-legged horse that the god Odin rode into the underworld in Norse mythology, or Virgil Fossae, named after the poet Virgil who guided Dante into the underworld in the Divine Comedy.

Real heroes and people are also honored in this initial list, reports Ian Sample for the Guardian. The heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio recognizes Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930, while the name Burney crater highlights Venetia Burney, the then 11-year-old girl who suggested the new discovery's name to Tombaugh in a letter.

The late MIT astronomer James Elliot, who helped discover Pluto's atmosphere, also gets a crater named for him (Elliot crater), while legendary Arab geographer Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi's surname graces a Plutonian mountain range (Al-Idrisi Montes). And the first pair of men to summit Mount Everest, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, fittingly get their own mountain ranges (Tenzing Montes and Hillary Montes).

Heroic spacecraft are also honored with their own features, including the "Voyager Terra," the "Sputnik Planitia" and the "Hayabusa Terra."

Some of these names were drawn from a public contest in 2015, while others were suggested and informally used by the team operating New Horizons. More names will be suggested by the team for approval in the future as they scrutinize the mass amount of data collected by the craft.

"These names highlight the importance of pushing to the frontiers of discovery," Rita Schulz, chair of the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, says in a statement.

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