Vulcan Loses In Pluto Moons Name Game. Did the IAU Choose Wisely?

by Elizabeth Howell on July 2, 2013

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Pluto's solar system in a 2012 artist's conception. P4 and P5 are now called Kerberos and Styx, respectively. Credit: NASA/John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Pluto’s solar system in a 2012 artist’s conception. P4 and P5 are now called Kerberos and Styx, respectively. Credit: NASA/John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

It looks like Vulcan was not the logical choice for the International Astronomical Union when it came to naming Pluto’s new moons.

The internationally recognized body for astronomy names selected Kerberos and Styx as the new names for Plutonian moons P4 and P5, respectively. While these names were popular in a public vote last year concerning Pluto’s new moons, Vulcan — the overwhelming favorite, and backed by none other than Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk (William Shatner) — was not selected.

The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) said Vulcan, which was first popularized in the 1960s as the home world of Star Trek character Spock, was considered.

“The IAU gave serious consideration to this name, which happens to be shared by the Roman god of volcanoes. However, because that name has already been used in astronomy, and because the Roman god is not closely associated with Pluto, this proposal was rejected,” a release stated.

Vulcan was previously used as the name for a hypothetical world in the interior of Mercury’s orbit, but that idea has since been discredited. (More on Universe Today writer David Dickinson’s website.)

Kirk's evil twin.  Credit: Paramount

Vulcan received the support of William Shatner, pictured here in his Star Trek role as Captain James Kirk. Credit: Paramount

There will be more about Styx and Kerberos in this SETI-hosted Google Hangout, which will be held live starting at noon Eastern (4 p.m. GMT).

Kerberos is a three-headed dog in Greek mythology and Styx a mythological river that is the boundary between the living world and that of the dead. These are fitting names given Pluto’s other moons: Charon, Nix and Hydra, all of which meet the IAU’s rules to name them after Greek and Roman underworld personas.

We’ll get a closer look at these strange new worlds in 2015, when the New Horizons spacecraft skims through the Pluto system. There may be other, tiny moons lurking around the dwarf planet that New Horizons could find.

Do you feel the IAU made the right choice? It’s not the first time it waded into tricky waters concerning Pluto; some in the public still complain today about the decision to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status in 2006.

Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Source: SETI

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Patrick Scheible July 2, 2013 at 5:01 PM

Yes, IAU made the right choice. Vulcan is supposed to be a hot, habitable planet with no moon. Not an airless moon in the outer solar system. Sorry, Bill.

David Haddad July 2, 2013 at 6:08 PM

When the IAU picks a name, they have to plan long-term. Will a 20th century pop-culture reference make sense 10,000 years from now?

Planemo July 2, 2013 at 6:28 PM

Its possible the human race will be here then. Unlikely, but possible. I believe your correct. I doubt they will argue over such frivolous things. Then again, human nature being what it is. It gives you a few reasons to doubt. I myself aspire to what Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star-Trek aspires to. His vision of equality totally across the board I am pulling for.

Torbjörn Larsson July 2, 2013 at 7:22 PM

Total equality? The Star Trek universe had captains, scientists and experts, all areas of elitism.

It was more egalitarian, but not impossibly so.

Planemo July 2, 2013 at 9:33 PM

You get lost in more translations of meaning than anyone I know in here! Look up before it goes completely over your head! Oppps, .ever mind….it already did. ;-)

Kevin Frushour July 2, 2013 at 8:03 PM

Especially since according to Futurama Star Trek will be banned in the 2700′s!

Astroraider July 3, 2013 at 6:25 AM

Will ancient mythology make any sense 10,000 years from now ??? Will they actually know what a Roman or Greek was and will they care???

I suspect, that when we actually get out “there” and have outposts in the Solar Systems, the moons will probably be known more by the major base on them rather than the name of the moons — and, likely, the moons will get “nicknames” that neither you nor I can imagine even make sense out of from our perspectives in the past.

Gusssss July 3, 2013 at 12:40 PM

“Jesus” hasn’t done too badly so far.

Victorinox July 3, 2013 at 2:27 PM

Moons have been named after characters from English literature… Why would chosing 20th century cultural references be any different?

Woodrow Waxman Wotan July 2, 2013 at 6:24 PM

“VulllllKHAAAAAAAANN!”

Chris Jones July 2, 2013 at 6:33 PM

Stupid question. (BTW, the answer is yes.) A better question would be did Shatner and the voters choose wisely?

Vulcan has already been used for the name of a hypothetical and apparently non-existent planet near Mercury’s orbit, a hypothetical and apparently non-existent asteroid belt (as an adjective, Vulcanoid) inside Mercury’s orbit (both appropriate names, given Vulcan’s association with heat), and a fictional extra-solar planet. Nothing about the name seems appropriate for association with Pluto, while the two new names are eminently appropriate.

The fact that there are poeple still whining about Pluto’s so-called “demotion” (what’s more prestigous, being the 9th and smallest planet, or the first of a new class of solar system body?) shows that logic is not driving these arguments (sort of inappropriate given the fictional Vulcan inhabitants’ behavior).

The Latinist July 2, 2013 at 6:48 PM

Of course they made the right decision, for all the reasons mentioned but for one more even more important reason: Vulcan is a Roman god; naming a moon after him would depart from the long-standing practice of naming planets after Roman gods and moons after Greek ones.

mrband July 15, 2013 at 10:53 AM

That’s not entirely true: Uranus’ moons are named by Shakesperian characters (Cordelia, Ophelia, Bianca, Cressida, Desdemone, Juliet, Portia, Puck, Rosalinda, Miranda, Titania, Oberon) and also from Alexander Pope’s poem “The rape of the lock” characters (Belinda, Umbriel, Ariel).

So your Greek rule for moons is not absolute. However I admit that the IAU names are far better than Vulcan.

Kidder July 2, 2013 at 8:14 PM

Save Vulcan for a better suitor. Show some LOGICAL respect. T-pal would lose it.

Charles D Clark July 2, 2013 at 10:31 PM

Pluto’s moons should be named mickey and Minnie! ha ha!

Raymond Gilbert July 2, 2013 at 6:33 PM

I agree with the IAU. Vulcan is associated with heat. Pluto and its moons are in the freezing Kuiper Belt.

Astroraider July 2, 2013 at 11:50 PM

Nix and Styx may break my bones

but Kerberos and Hydra will never hurt me …

danangel July 3, 2013 at 1:31 AM

Too late now, but I still prefer Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Tone Yvr July 3, 2013 at 3:41 PM

My reaction was “yes!!”; thank goodness the IAU weren’t swayed by celebrity-power. Vulcan is such conflicting name for the frigid environment of Pluto. It should be saved for some future discovery – a planet that has a fiery volcanic surface.

ITSRUF July 4, 2013 at 1:46 AM

Good names.
Everyone knows that Vulcan orbits Epsilon Eridani

hannodb July 4, 2013 at 8:11 AM

Pluto will always be a planet as far as I’m concerned. If there is something in dire need f demotion, it is asteroids “moons”. It is quite ridiculous that we use that same word to refer to everything that orbits a planet, regardless to whether it’s an entire world almost the size of Mars, or just a piece of rock.

Darryl Daugherty July 6, 2013 at 1:52 AM

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or of Bill Shatner.

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