Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Pluto’s Moon Charon Could Have Mountains Named ‘Spock’ and ‘Skywalker’

This image of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 1, 2015, from a distance of 10 million miles (16 million kilometers), shows features as small as 100 miles (160 kilometers) across. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft speeds past Pluto on July 14, it's going to spot a lot of nooks and crannies on Pluto and its moons that we've never seen before. On Tuesday, the team submitted a list of proposed names for them. There's plenty on the list to please "Star Trek" fans as well as those who love "Star Wars," the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft, and "The Wizard of Oz." The proposed names also evoke other sci-fi epics, real-life and fictional explorers, the biggest names in space exploration, and myths and legends from around the world.

As was the case for those two moons, Styx and Kerberos, it's up to the discoverers to propose names for craters, mountains and other geographical features. But then it's up to the International Astronomical Union to approve them. In this case, Mark Showalter, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute who organized the naming campaign is seeking "pre-approval" for the names on the newly announced list.

"It's up to the IAU, but since the public was so invested in the process, we thought it was appropriate to let the public know what we're proposing," Showalter told NBC News.

Pluto itself will have pretty straight-laced names for its newly discovered geological features. The categories include historical space missions, spacecraft, scientists and explorers, as well as beings, locations and characters from myths pertaining to the underworld -- a throwback to Pluto, the Roman god of hell. Sputnik and Hercules are both fair game for whatever those mysterious black spots on Pluto are.

Here are some of the proposed names:
  • Features on Pluto: The themes include space missions and spacecraft (Columbia and Challenger, Sputnik and Soyuz), scientists and engineers (Tombaugh, Lowell and Oort), historic explorers (Norgay, Hillary and Baré), underworld beings and locales (Cthulhu, Balrog and Pandemonium), and travelers to the underworld (Heracles, Virgil and Beatrice).
  • Features on Charon, Pluto's largest moon: Fictional explorers and travelers (Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Skywalker, Leia, Vader, Alice, Dorothy), fictional origins and destinations (Vulcan, Mordor, Tatooine), fictional vessels (Serenity, Tardis, Nostromo, Galactica), and authors, artists and directors who touched on exploration (Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Madeleine L'Engle).
  • Features on the moon Styx: River gods (Ethiopia's Eqqo, Egypt's Hapi, Zaire's Mbongo).
  • Features on the moon Nix: Deities of the night (Chandra, a Hindu moon god; Bodach, a Scottish goblin; Metsaka, a moon goddess of Mexico's Huichol people).
  • Features on the moon Kerberos: Dogs from literature, history and mythology (Laika and Toto).
  • Features on the moon Hydra: Legendary serpents and dragons (Jabberwock, Smaug and Falkor).
  • Input for the list came from an "OurPluto" online survey that drew about 60,000 filled-in ballots and 15,000 write-in candidates.
Meanwhile the New Horizons team released the latest map of Pluto created from images taken from June 27 to July 3 by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), combined with lower-resolution color data from the spacecraft’s Ralph instrument. The center of the map corresponds to the side of Pluto that will be seen close-up during New Horizons’ July 14 flyby.

This map of Pluto, created from images taken from June 27-July 3, 2015, by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons, was combined with lower-resolution color data from the spacecraft's Ralph instrument. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This map of Pluto, created from images taken from June 27-July 3, 2015, by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons, was combined with lower-resolution color data from the spacecraft's Ralph instrument. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This map gives mission scientists an important tool to decipher the complex and intriguing pattern of bright and dark markings on Pluto’s surface. Features from all sides of Pluto can now be seen at a glance and from a consistent perspective, making it much easier to compare their shapes and sizes.

The elongated dark area informally known as "the whale," along the equator on the left side of the map, is one of the darkest regions visible to New Horizons. It measures some 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in length.

Directly to the right of the whale’s "snout" is the brightest region visible on the planet, which is roughly 990 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. This may be a region where relatively fresh deposits of frost—perhaps including frozen methane, nitrogen and/or carbon monoxide—form a bright coating.

Continuing to the right, along the equator, we see the four mysterious dark spots that have so intrigued the world, each of which is hundreds of miles across. Meanwhile, the whale’s "tail," at the left end of the dark feature, cradles a bright donut-shaped feature about 200 miles (350 kilometers) across. At first glance it resembles circular features seen elsewhere in the solar system, from impact craters to volcanoes. But scientists are holding off on making any interpretation of this and other features on Pluto until more detailed images are in hand.

Of course, higher-resolution images in the days to come will allow mission scientists to make more accurate maps, but this map is a tantalizing preview.

"We’re at the 'man in the moon’ stage of viewing Pluto," said John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, deputy leader of the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team. "It’s easy to imagine you’re seeing familiar shapes in this bizarre collection of light and dark features. However, it’s too early to know what these features really are."

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