Pluto’s moon Charon gets 12 new names sci-fi and mythology geeks will love

The IAU has just approved a dozen new names for features on Pluto’s moon Charon. They draw from an array of famous authors, characters, mythical objects and one U.S. filmmaker.

Charon's named spots. (Big Think/Corry O’Quinn)
Charon's named spots. (Big Think/Corry O’Quinn)

There's only one organization with the “official" ability to name off-Earth objects and places: The International Astronomical Union (IAU). We put “official" in quotes because these are just the names humans give them—to our knowledge, there is no intergalactically sanctioned authority. The IAU adorns most of what's out there—a lot of stuff—mostly with numeric monikers based on a system that uses prefixes to provide various bits of information about the object in addition to giving it a name. What's popularly known as the Andromeda Galaxy, for example, has two “official" names: M31 and NGC 224. The "M" stands for Messier, signifying that it's included in the catalog begun by Charles Messier in the late 18th/early 19th century. "NGC" is for its name in the New General Catalog. This month, the IAU approved a set of thought-provoking place names on Pluto's moon Charon proposed by NASA's New Horizons team.


But before we get to Pluto's moon, let's spend a little time “on" ours. (That's it. We're all out of quotation marks now.)

Earth moon names

The names for major lunar features come from Giovanni Battista Riccioli, an astronomer in the 1600s. He named observable features—no dark side could yet be seen—using a few themes, including weather (Sea of Rains), states of mind (Sea of Tranquility), historical names, and, to appease the Catholic Church, some saints were thrown in for good measure.


Riccioli's moon map (Credit: Wikipedia)

The original names have been tweaked with designations from modern scientists and space programs, and the dark side of the moon has also been mapped. Some of the new names are IAU-official, and some of the more fun ones are informally used by various nations' space programs as quick shorthand. Who among us wouldn't wish to observe Earthrise standing within NASA's crater Shorty.

Pluto moon names

Here's a list of the new IAU-sanctioned names on Charon. It's quite a group.

1. Argo Chasma

Remember the quest for the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology? When Jason and his crew, the aptly named “Argonauts," departed Iolcos en route for Colchis, the ship they sailed on was the Argo.


(Credit: Sony)

2. Butler Mons

The first science fiction author to win a MacArthur fellowship was Octavia E. Butler in 1995. She wrote a number of cherished books including her Patternist series and Xenogenesis trilogy.

3. Caleuche Chasma

Spooky. The Caleuche is the ghost ship of Chilean mythology reported to sail around the small island of Chiloé in the dark of night. A vessel out of north Chilote mythology, it has several versions and is often considered to be conscious and sentient. Whatever it is, it collects the souls of the dead as its crew on an endless voyage.

4. Clarke Montes

Arthur C. Clarke barely needs an introduction as the author of many well-regarded works of science fiction, including 2001: A Space Odyssey. His metier was space exploration, so he's a natural for Charon.

5. Dorothy Crater

She is definitely not in Kansas anymore. Dorothy Crater is named for the heroine of L. Frank Baum's beloved Wizard of Oz book series.

6. Kubrick Mons

It's a hotly debated film still today—brilliant or boring?—but 2001: A Space Odyssey is nonetheless an inarguable landmark in science-fiction moviemaking and so its genius director, Stanley Kubrick, gets a mountain on Charon. It's not Kubrick's only great film; see Dr. Strangelove.

7. Mandjet Chasma

Another mythical boat is honored on Charon. The Mandjet was the vessel that carried the god Ra —AKA the sun—across the sky each day. At night, the Mesektet reset Ra's location for the next day's journey. Together they were his Atet, sort of the first spaceship.

8. Nasreddin Crater


Nasreddin statue in Bukhara city, Uzbekistan (Photo: Sun_Shine/Shutterstock)

Nasreddin was a Turkish wise man and philosopher who died in 1275-1285 BCE. He eventually became a fictionalized character in countless humorous stories and parables told across the centuries throughout the Middle East, parts of Asia, and southern Europe.

9. Nemo Crater

In Jules' Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island, there was the submarine Nautilus, helmed by the redoubtable Captain Nemo—AKA Prince Dakkar—who's now immortalized in crater form on Charon.

10. Pirx Crater

Stanislaw Lem is a highly regarded sci-fi writer and Pilot Pirx is a character from his Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Pirx is a spaceman, and a space detective, traveling between Earth, Earth's moon, and Mars, though not, it should be noted, out to Pluto.

11. Revati Crater

One of the less well-known characters in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Revati was a beautiful princess who's generally considered the first fictional character to deal with time travel, way back in 400 BCE.

12. Sadko Crater


'Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom' (Painting: Ilya Repin)

From Russian folklore comes Sadko, a merchant, adventurer, and musician from Novgorod who involuntarily explored the ocean bottom after being forced overboard by his ship's crew. This is part of Bylina, a sung narrative passed down through generations of Eastern Slavs.

Venerable names all

One more name to note: Charon's. The moon was discovered by James Christy in 1978 when the astronomer grew suspicious about Pluto's odd, elongated shape. Or was it really two objects? Well, yes. The moon is just 12,200 miles from Pluto and about half its size. According to NASA, Christy named it for the “mythological ferryman who carried souls across the river Acheron, one of the five mythical rivers that surrounded Pluto's underworld." Also, the first three letters are the same as the first three letters of Christy's wife's. Her name is “Charlene."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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