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.

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


(Credit: MGM)

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.”

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    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.