In the summer of 2015, the tiny world of Pluto came into focus for the first time as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sped closer and closer toward the dwarf planet. During this approach, images taken by the probe revealed a diverse landscape of surface features on Pluto, including a giant heart-shaped region of icy plains and mountain ranges that stretch more than 11,000 feet high. The New Horizons mission team have since given all these unique features some of the most wonderful, nerdy names ever, but the titles have only been informal ones up until now.
Fortunately, many of these creative labels could soon become official. Today, the International Astronomical Union — the group responsible for naming celestial bodies throughout the Universe — says it has accepted the themes submitted by the New Horizons team for naming the features on Pluto and its moons. The themes include titles that celebrate scientists who studied the dwarf planet, as well as pioneers and missions that crossed “new horizons” when exploring Earth and space. (See what they did there?)
And since Pluto is named after the god of the underworld, many of the naming schemes are supposed to revolve around ancient gods or beings associated with Hades, as well as those who have explored the afterlife. These guidelines will fit with many of the deathly names already given to the planetary system. Pluto’s largest moon is named Charon, after the guy who carried souls across the river Styx for Hades. Oh, and one of the tinier moons is also named Styx.
That means many of the informal names for Pluto’s surface features are poised to become actual titles, since many of them already fit into these themes. The icy heart-shaped region has been dubbed Tombaugh Regio, after Clyde Tombaugh — the man who discovered Pluto in 1930. Meanwhile, a large dark whale-shaped region on Pluto was named Cthulhu Regio, after the creepy octopus-dragon god created by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The New Horizons team got help with some of these names from the public, thanks to the “Our Pluto” campaign held a few months before the spacecraft’s flyby in July 2015.
Pluto’s moons haven’t been left out of the process either. Charon also has a list of naming schemes that include fictional vessels, destinations, and voyagers. The four other tinier moons each get their own themes, too. Features on Styx have to be named after river gods, naturally, and the moon Hydra will get names of legendary serpents and dragons. This will be helpful since some of the features on the smaller moons haven’t even been giving informal titles yet, according to a New Horizons scientist.
We used informal names for many things (so the papers worked), but not everything. Eg Nix craters have no informal names, now can be named.— Simon Porter (@AscendingNode) February 23, 2017
Just because the IAU has accepted the New Horizons naming themes doesn’t mean the informal titles automatically become official, though. Now, the NASA scientists have to submit the titles, as long as the names fit within the guidelines. So here’s hoping that Cthulhu does indeed live the rest of its days on Pluto; better out there than here.