Naming Pluto: Christening Features on Brave New Worlds

Artist's impression of Charon (left) and Pluto (right), showing their relative sizes. Credit:

‘Here be Dragons…’ read the inscriptions of old maps used by early seafaring explorers. Such maps were crude, and often wildly inaccurate.

The same could be said for our very understanding of distant planetary surfaces today. But this week, we’ll be filling in one of those ‘terra incognita’ labels, as New Horizons conducts humanity’s very first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons.

The closest approach for New Horizons is set for Tuesday, July 14th at 11:49 UT/7:49 AM EDT, as the intrepid spacecraft passes 12,600 kilometres (7,800 miles) from Pluto’s surface. At over 4 light hours or nearly 32 astronomical units (AUs) away, New Horizons is on its own, and must perform its complex pirouette through the Pluto system as it cruises by at over 14 kilometres (8 miles) a second.

This also means that we’ll be hearing relatively little from the spacecraft on flyby day, as it can’t waste precious time pointing its main dish back at the Earth. With a downlink rate of 2 kilobits a second—think ye ole 1990’s dial-up, plus frozen molasses—it’ll take months to finish off data retrieval post flyby. A great place to watch a simulation of the flyby ‘live’ is JPL’s Eyes on the Solar System, along with who is talking to New Horizons currently on the Deep Space Network with DSN Now.

A snapshot of the current July 13th view of New Horizons as it nears Pluto. (Image credit: NASA's Eyes on the Solar System).
A snapshot of the current July 13th view of New Horizons as it nears Pluto. (Image credit: NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System).

Launched in 2006, New Horizons is about to join the ranks of nuclear-fueled explorers that have conducted first time reconnaissance of solar system objects.

Bob King also wrote up an excellent timeline of New Horizons events for Universe Today yesterday. Also be sure to check out the Planetary Society’s in-depth look at what to expect by Emily Lakdawalla.

Seems strange that after more than a decade of recycling the same blurry images and artist’s conceptions in articles, we’re now getting a new and improved shot of Pluto and Charon daily!

To follow the tale of Pluto is to know the story of modern planetary astronomy. Discovered in 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh from the Lowell Observatory, Pluto was named by 11-year old Venetia Burney. Venetia just passed away in 2009, and there’s a great short documentary interview with her entitled Naming Pluto.

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The blink comparitor Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto, on display at the Lowell Observatory. Image Credit: David Dickinson

Fun fact: Historians at the Carnegie Institute recently found images of Pluto on glass plates… dated 1925, from five years before its discovery.

Despite the pop culture reference, Pluto was not named after the Disney dog, but after the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto the dog was not named in Disney features until late 1930, and if anything, the character was more than likely named after the buzz surrounding the newest planet on the block.

We’re already seeing features on Pluto and Charon in the latest images, such as the ‘heart,’ ‘donut,’ and the ‘whale’ of Pluto, along with chasms, craters and a dark patch on Charon. The conspicuous lack of large craters on Pluto suggests an active world.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) convention for naming any new moons discovered in the Plutonian system specifies characters related to the Roman god Pluto and tales of the underworld.

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Brake for New Horizons on July 14th… Image credit: David Dickinson

With features, however, cartographers of Pluto should get a bit more flexibility. Earlier this year, the Our Pluto campaign invited the public to cast votes to name features on Pluto and Charon related to famous scientists, explorers and more. The themes of ‘fictional explorers and vessels’ has, of course, garnered much public interest, and Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and the Firefly vessel Serenity may yet be memorialized on Charon. Certainly, it would be a fitting tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy. We’d like to see Clyde Tombaugh and Venetia Burney paid homage to on Pluto as well.

We’ve even proposed the discovery of a new moon be named after the mythological underworld character Alecto, complete with a Greek ‘ct’ spelling to honor Clyde Tombaugh.

The discovery and naming of Charon in 1978 by astronomer Robert Christy set a similar precedent. Christy choose the name of the mythological boatman who plied the river Styx (which also later became a Plutonian moon) as it included his wife Charlene’s nickname ‘Char.’ This shibboleth  also set up a minor modern controversy as to the exact pronunciation of Charon, as the mythological character is pronounced with a hard ‘k’ sound, but most folks (including NASA) say the moon as ‘Sharon’ in keeping with Christy’s in-joke that slipped past the IAU.

And speaking of Pluto’s large moon, someone did rise to the occasion and take our ‘Charon challenge,’ we posed during the ongoing Pluto opposition season recently. Check out this amazing capture of the +17th magnitude moon winking in and out of view next to Pluto courtesy of Wendy Clark:

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Click here to see the animation of the possible capture of Charon near Pluto. Image credit and copyright: Wendy Clark

Clark used the 17” iTelescope astrograph located at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia to tease out the possible capture of the itinerant moon.

Great job!

What’s in a name? What strange and wonderful discoveries await New Horizons this week? We should get our very first signal back tomorrow night, as New Horizons ‘phones home’ with its message that it survived the journey around 9:10 PM EDT/1:10 UT. Expect this following Wednesday—in the words of New Horizons principal Investigator Alan Stern—to begin “raining data,” as the phase of interpreting and evaluating information begins.

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The women who power the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Image credit: SwRI/JHUAPL

And there’s more in store, as the New Horizons team will make the decision to maneuver the spacecraft for a rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) next month. Said KBO flyby will occur in the 2019-2020 timeframe, and perhaps, we’ll one day see a Pluto orbiter mission or lander in the decades to come…

Maybe one way journeys to ‘the other Red Planet’ are the wave of the future.’ Pluto One anyone?

See Pluto for Yourself Ahead of New Horizons’ Historic Encounter

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Are you ready for July? The big ticket space event of the year is coming right up, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is set to make its historic flyby targeting a pass 12,500 kilometres (7,750 miles) from the surface of Pluto at 11:50 UT on July 14th. Already, Pluto and its moons are growing sharper by the day, as New Horizons closes in on Pluto at over 14 kilometres per second.

And the good news is, this flyby of the distant world occurs just eight days after Pluto reaches opposition for 2015, marking a prime season to track down the distant world with a telescope.

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The path of Pluto through 2015. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software

Pluto and its large moon Charon are snapping into focus as we reach the two week out mark. Discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh while working at the Lowell observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, these far off worlds are about to become real places in the public imagination. It’s going to be an exciting—if tense—few weeks, as new details and features are seen on these brave new worlds, all calling out for names. Are there undiscovered moons? Does Pluto host a ring system? What is the history of Pluto?

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A wide field view of Sagittarius and Pluto with inset (see chart above) Image credit: Starry Night education software

Hunting for Pluto with a backyard telescope is difficult, though not impossible. We suggest an aperture of 10-inches or greater, though the tiny world has been reliably spotted using a 6-inch reflector. Pluto reaches opposition on July 6th at 10:00 UT/6:00 AM EDT, marking a period when it will rise opposite to the setting Sun and transit highest near local midnight. Pluto spends all of 2015 in the constellation Sagittarius. This presents two difficulties: 1). We’re currently looking at Pluto against the very star-rich backdrop towards the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, and 2). Its southerly declination means that it won’t really ‘clear the weeds’ much for northern hemisphere observers.

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The path of Pluto through July 2015. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

But don’t despair. With a good finder chart and patience, you too can cross Pluto off of your life list. In fact, the month of July sees Pluto thread its way between the 27’ wide  +4th magnitude pair Xi Sagittarii, making a great guidepost to spot the 14th magnitude world.

Don’t own a telescope? You can still wave in the general direction of New Horizons and Pluto on the evening of July 1st, using the nearby Full Moon as a guide:

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Pluto near the Full Moon on the night of July 1st. Image credit: Stellarium

Pluto orbits the Sun once every 248 years, and reaches opposition every 367 days. A testament to this slow motion is the fact that Mr. Tombaugh first spied Pluto south of the star Delta Gemini, and it has only moved as far as Sagittarius in the intervening 85 years. Pluto also passed perihelion in 1989, when it was about half a magnitude brighter than it currently is now. Pluto’s distance from the Sun varies from 30 AU to 49 AU, and Pluto will reach aphelion just under a century from now on 2114.

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Pluto versus Charon at greatest elongation. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Up for a challenge? Hunting down Pluto’s elusive moon Charon is an ultimate feat of astronomical athletics. Amazingly, this has actually been done before, as reported here in 2008 on Universe Today.

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Pluto… and Charon! Image credit: Antonello Medugno and Daniele Gasparri

Charon reaches greatest elongation 0.8” from Pluto once every three days. Shining at +16th magnitude,  Charon is a faint catch, though not impossible. We’re already seeing supporting evidence from early New Horizons images that these two worlds stand in stark contrast, with dark Charon covered in relatively low albedo dirty water-ice and while brighter Pluto is coated with reflective methane snow.

Credit: Ed Kotapish
Greatest elongation times and dates for Charon through the month of July 2015. Credit: Ed Kotapish

The current forward-looking view from New Horizons of Pluto is amazing to consider. As of July 1st, the spacecraft is 0.11 AU (17 million kilometres) from Pluto and closing, and the world appears as a +1.7 magnitude object about 30 arc seconds across.  The views of Pluto are courtesy of New Horizons’ LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager), which in many ways is very similar to a familiar backyard 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. It’s interesting to note that the views we’re currently getting very closely resemble amateur views of Mars near opposition, though we suspect that will change radically in about a week.

And it will take months for all of the New Horizons data to make its way back to Earth. The real nail-biter will be the 20 hour period of close rendezvous on July 14th, a period in which the spacecraft will have to acquire Pluto and Charon, do its swift ballet act, and carry out key observations—all on its own before phoning home. This will very likely be the only mission to Pluto in our lifetimes, as New Horizons will head out to rendezvous with several Kuiper Belt Objects in the 2020 time frame before joining the Voyager I & II and Pioneer 10 & 11 spacecraft in an orbit around the Milky Way Galaxy.

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Pluto (marked) from the morning of June 25th, 2015. Image credit and copyright: Jim Hendrickson

Just think, in less than a few weeks time, science writers will (at last!) have a wealth of Plutonian imagery to choose from courtesy of New Horizons, and not just a few blurry pics and artist’s conceptions that we’ve recycled for decades… let us know of your tales of tribulation and triumph as you attempt to hunt down Pluto this summer!