In 2015, in the months before the New Horizons spacecraft became the first earthly craft ever to sweep past Pluto and its large moon Charon, NASA invited the public to propose names for the features soon to be discovered on these worlds. That’s why, when the encounter took place in July 2015, the New Horizons mission team immediately began referring to the newly discovered features by name. After all, in their work, they had to call these features something, and the publicly proposed names were – as New Horizons’ Mark Showalter had said at the time – thoughtful. Now the International Astronomical Union Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature has given what they call an “official” nod to many of these Charon feature names.
A statement from the IAU said:
Charon is one of the larger bodies in the Kuiper Belt, and has a wealth of geological features, as well as a collection of craters similar to those seen on most moons. These features and some of Charon’s craters have now been assigned official names by the IAU.
The New Horizons team was instrumental in moving the new names through approval, and included the leader of the New Horizons missions, Alan Stern, and science team members Mark Showalter — the group’s chairman and liaison to the IAU — Ross Beyer, Will Grundy, William McKinnon, Jeff Moore, Cathy Olkin, Paul Schenk and Amanda Zangari. The team gathered most of their ideas during the Our Pluto online public naming campaign in 2015.
The names approved by the IAU encompass the diverse range of recommendations the team received from around the world during the Our Pluto campaign. As well as the efforts of the New Horizons team, members of the public all over the world helped to name the features of Charon by contributing their suggestions for names of the features of this far-flung moon.
Honoring the epic exploration of Pluto that New Horizons accomplished, many of the feature names in the Pluto system pay homage to the spirit of human exploration, honoring travelers, explorers and scientists, pioneering journeys, and mysterious destinations.
The Charon names focus on the literature and mythology of exploration. They are listed below.
Argo Chasma is named for the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts, in the epic Latin poem Argonautica, during their quest for the Golden Fleece.
Butler Mons honors Octavia E. Butler, the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur fellowship, and whose Xenogenesis trilogy describes humankind’s departure from Earth and subsequent return.
Caleuche Chasma is named for the mythological ghost ship that travels the seas around the small island of Chiloé, off the coast of Chile; according to legend, the Caleuche explores the coastline collecting the dead, who then live aboard it forever.
Clarke Montes honors Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the prolific science fiction writer and futurist whose novels and short stories (including 2001: A Space Odyssey) were imaginative depictions of space exploration.
Dorothy Crater recognizes the protagonist in the series of children’s novels, by L. Frank Baum, that follows Dorothy Gale’s travels to and adventures in the magical world of Oz.
Kubrick Mons honors film director Stanley Kubrick, whose iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey tells the story of humanity’s evolution from tool-using hominids to space explorers and beyond.
Mandjet Chasma is named for one of the boats in Egyptian mythology that carried the sun god Ra (Re) across the sky each day — making it one of the earliest mythological examples of a vessel of space travel.
Nasreddin Crater is named for the protagonist in thousands of humorous folktales told throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and parts of Asia.
Nemo Crater is named for the captain of the Nautilus, the submarine in Jules Verne’s novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874).
Pirx Crater is named for the main character in a series of short stories by Stanislaw Lem, who travels between the Earth, Moon and Mars.
Revati Crater is named for the main character in the Hindu epic narrative Mahabharata — widely regarded as the first in history (circa 400 BC) to include the concept of time travel.
Sadko Crater recognizes the adventurer who traveled to the bottom of the sea in the medieval Russian epic Bylina.
By the way, the IAU “officially” approved names for Pluto features late last year. Why do I keep putting the word “official” in quotes? It’s because some astronomers, including New Horizons’ science leader Alan Stern, think the IAU doesn’t have an exclusive right to give official names. Stern, in fact, has founded a private company called Uwingu, which also assigns names to planetary features, exoplanets and other space objects.
Bottom line: The IAU approves names for features on Pluto’s moon Charon.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.