'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' Collide on Pluto Moon Charon
The 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars' universes are coming together on Pluto's big moon Charon.
The "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" universes are coming together on Pluto's big moon Charon.
The team behind NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which performed the first-ever Pluto flyby last month, has unofficially named some Charon craters after characters from both beloved sci-fi franchises.
For example, newly released maps created by the New Horizons crew reveal that Charon now has a Vader Crater, as well as impact features named after fellow "Star Wars" principals Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. And James T. Kirk, captain of the starship Enterprise in the original "Star Trek" series, gets his own crater, as do his shipmates Mr. Spock, Sulu and Uhura. [See more photos of Pluto and its moons]
New Horizons' flyby revealed both Pluto and Charon to be complex worlds with diverse surfaces, so there are a lot of new features to name. Most of the newly announced Charon monikers are drawn from the science fiction canon; famed sci-fi authors Arthur C. Clarke and Octavia Butler get their own craters, for instance, and chasms on the 750-mile-wide (1,200 kilometers) moon are named after fictional spaceships, such as Nostromo from the 1979 film "Alien."
The Pluto appellations, by contrast, are generally more grounded in reality, featuring real-life explorers (though two large, dark features on the dwarf planet are named after the Balrog, a type of monster in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novels, and Cthulhu, a god created by writer H.P. Lovecraft, respectively).
For instance, Pluto's famous "heart" is named after Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who discovered the dwarf planet in 1930. Other parts of Pluto are named after pioneering space missions, including NASA's Viking, Pioneer and Voyager efforts; the Soviet Union's Venus-studying Venera program; and Hayabusa, a Japanese mission that returned pieces of an asteroid to Earth in 2010.
The large, icy plain within Tombaugh Regio ("Tombaugh Region") is called Sputnik Planum, after the famous Soviet satellite whose 1957 launch marked the birth of the space age. Other parts of the heart are named after the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, which were lost in 1986 and 2003, respectively, resulting in the death of 14 astronauts.
The New Horizons team is not just recognizing space exploration, either. Famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau's name now graces a Pluto cliff, and the dwarf planet's two known mountain ranges are named after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who, in 1953, became the first people ever to summit Mount Everest, Earth's tallest mountain.
The New Horizons team selected all of these monikers with help from the public - specifically, the "Our Pluto" campaign, a joint project involving NASA, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California.
People around the world suggested tens of thousands of names via the Our Pluto project during its March-April run, New Horizons team members have said.
The New Horizons team chose its favorites from this large database and submitted them to the IAU, which assigns "official" names to celestial bodies and their features. Vader Crater, Sputnik Planum, Nostromo Chasma and all the other appellations remain provisional until the IAU has approved them. (The IAU, of course, famously reclassified Pluto from "planet" to "dwarf planet" back in 2006.)
New Horizons team members have come up with a scheme to name features on Pluto, Charon and the dwarf planet's four tiny moons (which are called Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx).
The names of Pluto's surface features are divided into six themes: space missions and spacecraft, scientists and engineers, historic explorers, underworld beings, underworlds and underworld locales, and travelers to the underworld.
Charon's craters, mountains and canyons are being named according to four themes: fictional explorers and travelers; fictional origins and destinations; fictional vessels; and exploration authors, artists and directors.
Each of the four small moons has one associated theme: deities of the night (Nix), legendary serpents and dragons (Hydra), dogs from history, literature and mythology (Kerberos) and river gods (Styx).
The maps that host all of these names will continue to come together over the next year or so. It will likely take New Horizons about 15 more months to beam its complete set of flyby images and observations back to Earth, mission officials have said.
You can learn more about the Our Pluto campaign and read more of the New Horizons team's chosen names here: http://www.ourpluto.org/pluto
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Image showing the provisional names being used by the New Horizons team for features on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. These monikers have not yet been approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
New Horizons is a lean, speedy space machine, but mission managers did tuck in nine mementos. Here's a rundown of what’s aboard.
Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997, a few years before NASA finally committed to send a spacecraft to what was then considered the last unexplored planet in the solar system. Astronomers have since discovered that Pluto resides in a previously unknown region called the Kuiper Belt, with hundreds of thousands of mini-planets and comet-like objects orbiting beyond Neptune. Tombaugh is along in more than spirit. A small container of his ashes is attached to the inside, upper deck of New Horizons, inscribed with the following: "Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system's ‘third zone’ Adelle and Muron's boy, Patricia's husband, Annette and Alden's father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh."
Even before New Horizons’ launch in January 2006, public outreach was a big part of the mission. Its “Send Your Name to Pluto” campaign resulted in a compact disc containing the names of 434,738 people who signed up for the honors. The disc was mounted to the outside of the spacecraft. (If you signed up, you can search for your certificate at pluto.jhuapl.edu/Mission/Communications/Search-Name.php.) The project was spearheaded by an artist and member of the Carl Sagan team that developed gold-plated phonograph records containing sights and sounds from Earth for the 1970s-era Voyager probes. New Horizons also carries a second CD-ROM with pictures of the New Horizons team members, as well as two U.S. flags.
In 2004, Florida released its new state quarter, depicting, among other images, a space shuttle and engraved with the words “Gateway to Discovery.” It, along with a quarter from Maryland, were included to note the places where New Horizons departed Earth and where it was manufactured. “We thought it was a cool thing to do. All the states were coming out with new quarters then,” New Horizons lead scientist Alan Stern, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told Discovery News. “We would have flown Colorado too, but it didn’t have a state quarter in time.” With space tight aboard New Horizons and every ounce of weight a factor, the coins doubled as spin-balance weights.
In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp (it cost 29 cents to mail a letter back then, by the way) with an artist’s rendering of Pluto and the words “Not Yet Explored.” “We thought it would be great to have this stamp fly past Pluto while its message becomes obsolete,” Stern wrote on the project’s website. A petition is underway at change.org to have the USPS issue a new Pluto stamp, now that its old one is obsolete.
As New Horizons was coming together, SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded human spacecraft to travel in space. A trio of suborbital flights, including a test run and two trips to clinch the $10 million Ansari X Prize, gave SpaceShipOne a place in the history books, a spot in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and, for a little piece of it anyway, a ride aboard the first spaceship to travel to Pluto. The piece cut from SpaceShipOne is installed on New Horizons’ lower insider deck.