Astronomers Officially Name Surface Features on Pluto

Fagjun | Published 2017-09-28 15:57

Astronomers honor the British schoolgirl that named Pluto, as well as other figures, as they give the official names of the planet's surface features.



Which Plutonian features are which? [Image by SwRI/APL/NASA]



Venetia Burney was 11 years old when she heard of Pluto's discovery. She went to her grandfather, a librarian at Oxford's Bodleian Library, and told him that the newly discovered then-planet should be named Pluto. Burney's grandfather passed it on to astronomers in the US, where Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered the planet, approved of the name.


In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) set definitions on what a planet is, demoting the previously ninth planet in the solar system to a dwarf planet. Pluto is now known as the second-most massive known dwarf planet in the solar system, with the most massive being a dwarf planet named Eris.


Burney died 2009 at the age of 90. Astronomers have now honored her legacy by naming one of Pluto's surface features after her.



Pluto Honors Pioneers


A map of Pluto's newly named features [Image by Ross Beyer/SwRI/JHUAPL/NASA]



The Burney crater is among the 14 surface features that received their official names from the IAU on September 7. IAU's experts have worked for over a year to decide on the best names for the features, choosing from names suggested by other scientists as well as the public.


Another crater was named after MIT researcher and astronomer James Elliot. Elliot discovered the rings around Uranus and found a way to study Pluto's thin atmosphere.


The IAU also named the Tenzing Montes and Hillary Montes mountain ranges after mountaineers Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Hillary, from New Zealand, and Nepalese sherpa Tenzing were the first two people confirmed to have successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest.


Meanwhile, the team behind NASA's New Horizons mission have been calling two features Tombaugh Regio and Sputnik Planitia. Tombaugh Regio, named after Clyde Tombaugh, is a large, bright, heart-shaped surface feature easily identifiable on images of the planet. Sputnik Planitia is a large plain, named after Sputnik, the first satellite that the Soviet Union launched.



Underworld Mythology


Pluto's moon Charon has a bright red splotch on its pole--guess what its name is. [Image by SwRI/APL/NASA]



While some of these features have been named after people and spacecraft, there is a tradition that anything that has to do with Pluto is named after figures from the underworld mythology of various cultures. A feature named Tartarus Dorsa was named after Tartarus, the deepest pit of the Greek mythological underworld. The feature Virgil Fossae was named after the Roman poet Virgil, who described the underworld in the epic Aeneid. Virgil also appeared as a character in the Divine Comedy, who served as Dante's guide through purgatory and hell.


Sleipnir Fossa, meanwhile, was named after the eight-legged horse that carried the Norse god Odin to the underworld. Adlivun Cavus, another Plutonian feature, was named after the Inuit underworld Adlivun.


Djanggawul Fossae, however, is a feature named after mythological features that aren't involved in the underworld. According to Australian Yolngu mythology, the Djanggawul three siblings that created the landscape of Australia.


The IAU is set to name the features on Charon and the other moons of Pluto. There's hope that the bir ged splotch on Charon can keep its name—Mordor.

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