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Map projection of Charon

Map projection of Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five moons, annotated with its first set of official feature names. With a diameter of about 1,215 km, the France-sized moon is one of largest known objects in the Kuiper Belt, the region of icy, rocky bodies beyond Neptune.

Earlier this week the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced approval of names for a dozen craters, canyons and other surface features on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. In the spirit of exploration, as exemplified by the New Horizon mission that revealed these structures, the names honor explorers, visionaries, pioneering journeys, and mysterious destinations.

The process of naming things in the Pluto system — like most things Pluto, in fact — includes strong Flagstaff ties. Lowell Observatory baptized Pluto in 1930 and Jim Christy christened its largest moon Charon after he discovered it in 1978 from images captured at the United States Naval Observatory’s Flagstaff Station.

Last year, a team with the New Horizons mission that included Lowell’s Will Grundy, New Horizons principal investigator/Lowell advisory board member Alan Stern, and former Lowell researchers Cathy Olkin and Amanda Zangari worked with an IAU committee featuring Flagstaff’s Rose Hayward of the USGS and astronomy historian Bill Sheehan to name several surface features on Pluto. These teams again collaborated in this newest nomenclature effort, with the New Horizons group assembling a list based on suggestions from people around the world.

The approved Charon names focus on the literature and mythology of exploration and include the following:

  • Argo Chasma -- for the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, as told in the epic Latin poem “Argonautica”
  • Butler Mons – after Octavia E. Butler, the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur fellowship, and whose Xenogenesis trilogy describes humankind’s departure from Earth and subsequent return
  • Caleuche Chasma -- for the mythological ghost ship that travels the seas around the small island of Chiloé, off the coast of Chile; according to legend, the Caleuche explores the coastline collecting the dead, who then live aboard it forever
  • Clarke Montes -- for Arthur C. Clarke, the prolific science fiction writer and futurist whose novels and short stories (including "2001: A Space Odyssey") were imaginative depictions of space exploration
  • Dorothy Crater -- after the protagonist in the series of children’s novels, by L. Frank Baum, that follows Dorothy Gale’s travels to and adventures in the magical world of Oz
  • Kubrick Mons -- for film director Stanley Kubrick, whose iconic film "2001: A Space Odyssey" tells the story of humanity’s evolution from tool-using hominids to space explorers and beyond
  • Mandjet Chasma -- for one of the boats in Egyptian mythology that carried the sun god Ra across the sky each day — making it one of the earliest mythological examples of a vessel of space travel
  • Nasreddin Crater -- after the protagonist in thousands of humorous folktales told throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and parts of Asia
  • Nemo Crater -- for the captain of the Nautilus, the submarine in Jules Verne’s novels "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and "The Mysterious Island."
  • Pirx Crater -- for the main character in a series of short stories by Stanislaw Lem, who travels between the Earth, the Moon and Mars
  • Revati Crater -- for the main character in the Hindu epic narrative Mahabharata — widely regarded as the first in history (circa 400 BC) to include the concept of time travel
  • Sadko Crater -- after the adventurer who travels to the bottom of the sea in the medieval Russian epic "Bylina"

Kevin Schindler is the Lowell Observatory historian.


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