Astronomers consult the underworld to name Pluto's first features
In July 2015, the New Horizons probe zipped past Pluto, and images and information gathered during the historic flyby are still being processed and studied. Now, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has officially named 14 features on the dwarf planet's surface. The various mountains, ridges and valleys have all been given titles that honor influential astronomers and spacecraft, or continue the underworld theme that began with Pluto's naming in 1930.
The new names come from a mix of sources. Some of them had been casually thrown around by the New Horizons team over the years to describe the landscape, while others were suggested by the general public through a campaign called Our Pluto. Since the dwarf planet was originally named for Pluto, the god of the underworld in Greek mythology, many of the new titles have been plucked from various underworld myths from around the globe. Other landmarks are named after important explorers, both terrestrial and celestial, human or otherwise.
"We're very excited to approve names recognizing people of significance to Pluto and the pursuit of exploration as well as the mythology of the underworld," says Rita Schulz, chair of the IAU's Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature. "These names highlight the importance of pushing to the frontiers of discovery. We appreciate the contribution of the general public in the form of their naming suggestions and the New Horizons team for proposing these names to us."
The iconic heart shape on Pluto's surface has informally been referred to as the Tombaugh Regio for a while already, but now it's official. The title honors Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who first discovered the dwarf planet in 1930.
Burney crater is named after Venetia Burney, who was only 11 years old when she suggested the name "Pluto" for the newly-discovered dwarf planet.
Sputnik Planitia, the large plain that forms the western half of the heart shape, is named after the first manmade satellite to be launched into space.
Tenzing Montes and Hillary Montes are mountain ranges appropriately named after the members of the first expedition to climb and return from the summit Mount Everest: Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary.
Al-Idrisi Montes, a mountain range named after a 12th century Arabian geographer.
Fossae are long, narrow depressions in Pluto's landscape, and several sets of these were named after figures of the underworld from different cultures. The Djanggawul Fossae are named after ancestral beings from indigenous Australian folklore who were believed to hail from the island of the dead. From Norse mythology, Sleipnir Fossa was named after the eight-legged horse that carried Odin into the underworld, and Virgil Fossae is a reference to the Roman poet who guided Dante through Hell and Purgatory in the classic poem The Divine Comedy.
Adlivun Cavus is a deep depression named after the Inuit underworld.
Hayabusa Terra is a land mass named after the Japanese mission that retrieved the first sample of rock from an asteroid.
Voyager Terra is a similar swath of land bearing the title of the famous spacecraft that have recently celebrated their 40th anniversary in space – one of which is now the most distant manmade object in history.
Tartarus Dorsa is a ridge bearing the name of the deepest, darkest pit in the Greek mythology's version of the underworld.
And finally, the Elliot crater is named after the astronomer James Elliot, who discovered the rings around Uranus and pioneered new techniques to study Solar System bodies.
This list is just the beginning, with names for other geological features on Pluto and its moons expected to be discussed in the future.