Thursday, March 26, 2015

Help! Public Assistance Needed To Name Features On Pluto

Whatever features the New Horizons mission will find on Pluto and Charon this summer will be named by those who own Pluto and, according to the SETI Institute, everyone owns Pluto. Everyone thus stands a chance at naming one of the features that will be discovered on the dwarf planet.

SETI, which stands for the "search for extra-terrestrial intelligence," has launched the Our Pluto campaign, which aims to crowdsource the names for the features that will be found on the surfaces of Pluto and Charon, Pluto's largest satellite. Everyone interested can head to to vote on the names they think are appropriate for naming these mysterious celestial bodies and also submit names to be added to the list.

"Pluto belongs to everyone," said Mark Showalter, senior research scientist at the SETI Institute. "So we want everyone to be involved in making the map of this distant world."

Names that are nominated must conform to certain themes by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which will ultimately be responsible for choosing which names to use. The IAU has chosen the themes of mythology and literature and history of exploration for the names, which is why the name Clyde Tombaugh of the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930 is not included on the list.

Voting and nominations have already started and are expected to continue until April 7, after which the SETI Institute will choose the names they recommend and send them off to the IAU for the final selection. There are two ways to vote. One is for adults: they can scroll through the entire database of nominated names. The other is a simpler process for children.

This is not the first time the public was asked to name celestial bodies or their features. Kerberos and Styx, the two smallest satellites of Pluto that were discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope, were named via a similar public campaign, says Showalter.

"The difference is that last time we only needed two names, whereas now we could need more than a hundred," he said. "We are eager to gather recommendations from people all over the world."

Showalter maintains that the New Horizons team will not have time to think of names for Pluto's and Charon's features during the quick flyby expected this July, which is why the team needs a handy compilation of names nearby.

The New Horizons mission is the first of its kind and will gather the first closeup look of a cold, mysterious former planet and its just-as-mysterious moon.

"The Pluto flyby this summer will be a major milestone in planetary exploration," Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizon project, said. "We are really looking forward to hearing the public's ideas for future naming on Pluto and Charon."

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