One of the more interesting and rewarding aspects of astronomy and space exploration is seeing science fiction become science fact. While we are still many years away from colonizing the Solar System or reaching the nearest stars (if we ever do), there are still many rewarding discoveries being made that are fulfilling the fevered dreams of science fiction fans.
For instance, using the Dharma Planet Survey, an international team of scientists recently discovered a super-Earth orbiting a star just 16 light-years away. This super-Earth is not only the closest planet of its kind to the Solar System, it also happens to be located in the same star system as the fictional planet Vulcan from the Star Trek universe.
A big smile. That was my reaction to seeing the names of Uhura, Spock, Kirk and Sulu on the latest map of Pluto’s jumbo moon Charon. The monikers are still only informal, but new maps of Charon and Pluto submitted to the IAU for approval feature some of our favorite real life and sci-fi characters. Come on — Vader Crater? How cool is that?
Pluto’s features, in contrast, are named for both real people and places as well as mythological beings of underworld mythology. Clyde Tombaugh, the dwarf world’s discoverer, takes center stage, with his name appropriately spanning 990 miles (1,590 km) of frozen terrain nicknamed the “heart of Pluto”. Perhaps the most intriguing region of Pluto, it’s home to what appear to be glaciers of nitrogen ice still mobile at temperatures around –390°F (–234°C).
Pluto, being a physically, historically and emotionally bigger deal than Charon, comes with six themes. I’ve listed a few examples for each:
There’s nothing like a name. Not only do names make sure we’re all talking about the same thing, but they’re how we begin to understand the unique landscapes presented to us by Pluto and its wonderful system of satellites. To keep them all straight, astronomers at the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Planetary System Nomemclature are charged with choosing themes for each planet, asteroid or moon along with individual names for craters, canyons, mountains, volcanoes based on those themes. Astronomers help the group by providing suggested themes and names. In the case of the Pluto system, the public joined in to help the astronomers by participating in the Our Pluto Naming Campaign.
If you’ve followed naming conventions over the years, you’ve noticed more Latin in use, especially when it comes to basic land forms. I took Latin in college and loved it, but since few of us speak the ancient language anymore, we’re often at a loss to understand what’s being described. What’s a ‘Krun Macula’ or ‘Soyuz Colles’?
The first name is the proper name, so Krun denotes the Mandean god of the underworld. The second name – in Latin – describes the land form. Here’s a list of terms to help you translate the Plutonian and Charonian landscapes (plurals in parentheses):
Regio (Regi): Region
Mons (Montes): Mountain
Collis (Colles): Hill
Chasma (Chasmae): Canyon
Terra (Terrae): Land
Fossa (Fossae): Depression or fissure
Macula (Maculae): Spot
Valles (Valles): Valley
Rupes (Rupes): Cliff
Linea (Linea): Line
Dorsum (Dorsa): Wrinkle ridge
Cavus (Cava): Cavity or pit
“Fascinating, Captain.” If he were alive today, Leonard Nimoy, who played the half Vulcan-half human Mr. Spock in the Star Trek TV and movies series, would undoubtedly have raised an eyebrow and uttered a signature “fascinating” at the news this week that an asteroid now bears his name.
4864 Nimoy, a mountain-sized rock roughly 6 miles (10 km) across, orbits the Sun once every 3.9 years within the inner part of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Vulcan, er Jupiter.
Here’s the announcement from the Minor Planet Center made on June 2:
(4864) Nimoy = 1988 RA5
Discovered 1988 Sept. 2 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory.
Leonard Nimoy (1931–2015) was an American actor, film director and poet. Best known for his portrayal of the half-Vulcan/half-human science officer Spock in the original “Star Trek” TV series and subsequent movies, Nimoy wrote two autobiographies:
I Am Not Spock (1975) and I Am Spock (1995). M.P.C. 94384
4864 Nimoy was discovered by Belgian astronomer Henri Debehogne on September 2, 1988 and given the provisional designation 1988 RA5. This month, Spock’s “star” doesn’t get any brighter than 16th magnitude as it slowly tracks from Capricornus into Sagittarius in the late night sky. Come mid-July, amateurs with 14-inch or larger telescopes might glimpse it when it brightens to magnitude 15.
Spock – Fascinating!
Though portrayed as logical to a fault, Spock’s chilly exterior hid a heart as big as Jupiter. He was the hero of every nerd, and the perfect foil to Shatner’s Captain Kirk’s emotional excesses. Nimoy’s character showed that command of the facts and rational thinking made one very useful in dangerous and difficult situations. And great to poke fun at.
A few “Best of Spock” moments
While Leonard Nimoy’s name will forever tumble about the asteroid belt, his fictional character got there before him. Or did it? 2309 Mr. Spock (former 1971 QX1) was discovered by James Gibson on August 16, 1971. An outer main belt asteroid about 13 miles (21 km) across and orbiting the Sun every 5.23 years, it’s actually not named for the Star Trek character. Nope. Gibson named it for his cat.
The act prompted the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1985 to ban the use of pet names for asteroids. Aw, come on IAU, where’s your sense of humor? Then again, Nimoy’s Spock might have considered the new rule quite logical.
Leonard Nimoy played a half-alien-half-human character — Spock — who seemingly was going to live forever. He survived having his brain removed, being bitten by a deadly alien creature and other harrowing experiences. Later, he actually did give his life to save his crew but was resurrected. And he was transported through time in the Star Trek universe to spend his life across hundreds of years. But the very human Nimoy died earlier today at age 83, leaving a legacy of not just an enduring science fiction character, but the generations of scientists and explorers he inspired.
Nimoy had been hospitalized earlier in the week and his agent confirmed his death on February 27, saying the cause was end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Nimoy announced that he had the disease last year and attributed it to years of smoking, a habit he had quit nearly 30 years ago.
Nimoy was active on social media, and for the past couple of months, he seemed to be sending farewell messages to his fans with words of wisdom and sentiment that ended with “LLAP” — “live long and prosper” — a phrase made famous by Nimoy and his character Spock:
A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP
Now, following the announcement of his passing there has been an outpouring of sentiments for Nimoy and his character on social media, with expressions of how Nimoy inspired generations to look up and reach for the final frontier.
I’m a planetary scientist bc of Star Trek. I know I’m not the only one.
The Spock character was known for Vulcan logic and pointy ears, and Nimoy was a favorite with Star Trek fans of all ages. Nimoy not only appeared in the original Star Trek but he reprised his role in later Trek incarnations. He appeared in a total of eight Star Trek movies, and three different Star Trek series (original, animated and Star Trek: the Next Generation).
In addition to Star Trek, Nimoy appeared in “The Twilight Zone,” “Mission Impossible,” “THEM!” “The Brain Eaters,” “Sea Hunt,” “The Outer Limits,” “Get Smart,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “Night Gallery,” and was host of “In Search Of.” He also wrote two autobiographies (“I Am Not Spock” and “I am Spock,”) wrote and performed on 5 albums (one was titled, “Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space,”) was a photographer and poet, contributed to vocal acting, and directed 6 feature films, including “Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home,” and “Three Men and a Baby.”
He is survived by his wife, Susan, as well as two children and six grandchildren from his first marriage to Sandra Zober.
Spock has now reached the final frontier. Tonight we’ll toast his legacy of the “good of the many.”