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

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

Pluto May Soon Have a Moon Named Vulcan (Thanks to William Shatner)

The votes have been tallied and the results are in from the SETI Institute’s Pluto Rocks Poll: “Vulcan” and “Cerberus” have come out on top for names for Pluto’s most recently-discovered moons, P4 and P5.

After 450,324 votes cast over the past two weeks, Vulcan is the clear winner with a landslide 174,062 votes… due in no small part to a little Twitter intervention by Mr. William Shatner, I’m sure.

In other words… yes, the Trekkies have won.

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 2.32.53 PMDuring a Google+ Hangout today, SETI Institute senior scientist Mark Showalter — who discovered the moons and opened up the poll — talked with SETI astronomer Franck Marchis and MSNBC’s Alan Boyle about the voting results. Showalter admitted that he wasn’t quite sure how well the whole internet poll thing would work out, but he’s pleased with the results.

“I had no idea what to expect,” said Showalter. “As we all know the internet can be an unruly place… but by and large this process has gone very smoothly. I feel the results are fair.”

As far as having a name from the Star Trek universe be used for an actual astronomical object?

“Vulcan works,” Showalter said. “He’s got a family tie to the whole story. Pluto and Zeus were brothers, and Vulcan is a son of Pluto.”

And what can you say when even Mr. Spock agrees?

Leonard Nimoy's tweet

The other winning name, Cerberus, is currently used for an asteroid. So because the IAU typically tries to avoid confusion with two objects sharing the same exact name, Showalter said he will use the Greek version of the spelling: Kerberos.

Cerberus (or Kerberos) is the name of the giant three-headed dog that guards the gates to the underworld in Greek mythology.

Now that the international public has spoken, the next step will be to submit these names to the International Astronomical Union for official approval, a process that could take 1–2 months.

(Although who knows… maybe Bill can help move that process along as well?)

Read more about the names on the Pluto Rocks ballot here, and watch the full recorded Google+ Hangout below:

Help Name Pluto’s Newest Moons!

Today marks seven months since the announcement of Pluto’s fifth moon and over a year and a half since the discovery of the one before that. But both moons still have letter-and-number designations, P5 and P4, respectively… not very imaginative, to say the least, and not really fitting into the pantheon of mythologically-named worlds in our Solar System.

Today, you can help change that.

According to the New Horizons research team, after the discovery of P4 in June 2011 it was decided to wait to see if any more moons were discovered in order to choose names that fit together as a pair, while a*lso following accepted IAU naming practices. Now, seven months after the announcement of P5, we think a decision is in order… and so does the P4/P5 Discovery Team at the SETI Institute.

"Hey, I can be democratic about this!"
“Hey, I can be democratic about all this!”

Today, SETI Senior Research Scientist Mark Showalter revealed a new poll site, Pluto Rocks, where visitors can place their votes on a selection of names for P4 and P5 — or even write in a suggestion of their own. In line with IAU convention these names are associated with the Greek and Roman mythology surrounding Pluto/Hades and his underworld-dwelling minions.

“In 1930, a little girl named Venetia Burney suggested that Clyde Tombaugh name his newly discovered planet ‘Pluto.’ Tombaugh liked the idea and the name stuck. I like to think that we are doing honor to Tombaugh’s legacy by now opening up the naming of Pluto’s two tiniest known moons to everyone.”

– Mark Showalter, SETI Institute

As of the time of this writing, the ongoing results look like this:

Results of Pluto Rocks voting as of Feb. 11, 2013 at 10 am EST (15:00 UT)
Results of Pluto Rocks voting as of Feb. 11, 2013 at 10 am EST (15:00 UT)

Do you like where the voting is headed? Are you hellishly opposed? Go place your vote now and make your opinion count in the naming of these two distant worlds!

(After all, New Horizons will be visiting Pluto in just under two and a half years, and she really should know how to greet the family.)

Voting ends at noon EST on Monday, February 25th, 2013.

The SETI team welcomes you to submit your vote every day, but only once per day so that voting is fair.

UPDATE: On Feb. 25, the final day of voting, the tally is looking like this:

PlutoRocks results as of Feb. 25, 2013 - Vulcan is in the lead, thanks to publicity from Mr. William Shatner
PlutoRocks results as of Feb. 25, 2013 – Vulcan is in the lead, thanks to publicity from Mr. William Shatner

Thanks in no small part to a bit of publicity on Twitter by Captain Kirk himself, Mr. William Shatner (and support by Leonard Nimoy) “Vulcan” has made the list and warped straight to the lead. Will SETI and the IAU honor such Trek fan support with an official designation? We shall soon find out…

Fifth Moon Found Around Pluto

This just in! Astronomers working with the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a new moon around distant Pluto, bringing the known count up to 5. The image above was released by NASA just minutes ago, showing the Pluto system with its newest member, P5.

This news comes just a couple of weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of the announcement of Pluto’s 4th known moon, still currently named “P4”.

The news was shared this morning by an undoubtedly excited Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) on Twitter.

Astronomers estimate P5 to be between 6 and 15 miles (9.6 to 24 km) in diameter. It orbits Pluto in the same plane as the other moons — Charon, Nix, Hydra and P4.

“The moons form a series of neatly nested orbits, a bit like Russian dolls,” said team lead Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute.

A mini-abstract of an upcoming paper lists image sets acquired on 5 separate occasions in June and July. According to the abstract, P5 is 4% as bright as Nix and 50% as bright as P4.

The satellite’s mean magnitude is V = 27.0 +/- 0.3, making it 4 percent as bright as Pluto II (Nix) and half as bright as S/2011 (134340) 1. The diameter depends on the assumed geometric albedo: 10 km if p_v = 0.35, or 25 km if p_v =0.04. The motion is consistent with a body traveling on a near-circular orbit coplanar with the other satellites. The inferred mean motion is 17.8 +/- 0.1 degrees per day (P = 20.2 +/- 0.1 days), and the projected radial distance from Pluto is 42000 +/- 2000 km, placing P5 interior to Pluto II (Nix) and close to the 1:3 mean motion resonance with Pluto I (Charon).

The new detection will help scientists navigate NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft through the Pluto system in 2015, when it makes an historic and long-awaited high-speed flyby of the distant world.

See the news release from NASA here.

(H/T to Ray Sanders at DearAstronomer.com)

Top image: NASA, ESA and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)