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Ride, Sally Ride! Pluto landmarks honor pioneers of flight

Two women pioneers of flight now have places of honor on Pluto, thanks to the International Astronomical Union and the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission.

The IAU has formally approved naming a huge cliff near the southern tip of Pluto’s heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio after Sally Ride (1951-2012), who became the first American woman in space in 1983.

“Sally loved space exploration,” Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride’s life partner, said in a NASA news release. “Even after her NASA years, she dreamed of joining a mission to the moon or Mars or Pluto. Sally also loved the debate about whether or not Pluto was a true planet. And she appreciated the new criteria for classifying a planet. After all, how else can a planetary scientist decide? Sally would be over the moon — or Pluto — with the honor of having Ride Rupes named after her.”

Not far from Ride Rupes is Coleman Mons, an ice volcano that’s named after Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) the first African-American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot’s license. She earned her license in France in 1923, at a time when U.S. flight schools didn’t admit women or Black people.

“Sally Ride and Bessie Coleman were separated by generations, but they are forever connected by their great achievements, which opened doors for women and girls around the world,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “In breaking barriers they motivated so many women to pursue dreams and careers they didn’t think were possible, and their sheer persistence and pursuit of equality inspire people to this day.”

“Rupes” (pronounced “ru-pess”) is the Latin word for a cliff, while “mons” is Latin for mountain. The use of such Latinate names is traditional for the IAU’s nomenclature. It’s also traditional for the names of planetary features to be proposed by the discoverers.

New Horizons deputy project scientist Kelsi Singer, who’s based at the Southwest Research Institute, was the one who suggested the tributes to Ride and Coleman.

“It is exciting to be honoring these amazing women who were on the forefront of exploration with named geologic features on the edge of the classical solar system,” Singer said. “These fascinating geologic features are important to understanding the icy volcanic and tectonic history of Pluto, which itself is the gateway to the largely unexplored region called the Kuiper Belt. Coleman Mons and Ride Rupes will be studied for a long time to come.”

Pluto’s geographical features are traditionally named after historical pioneers of exploration, figures from underworld mythology, and scientists and engineers who are associated with the dwarf planet and other denizens of the Kuiper Belt at the solar system’s edge.

Dozens of names were proposed on an unofficial basis just after the New Horizons spacecraft’s flyby in 2015, but not all of them have been cleared by the IAU. For example, Cthulhu Macula has been stuck in the nether world of planetary nomenclature — in part because H.P. Lovecraft, the author who created the myth of the Cthulhu monster, espoused racist and anti-Semitic views in some of his other writings.

Since then, New Horizons has moved on. On New Year’s Day of 2019, the piano-sized spacecraft was guided to a flyby past a double-lobed Kuiper Belt object known as Arrokoth. Now it’s heading deeper into the icy ring of mini-worlds, nearly 5 billion miles from Earth.

In his latest update, New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said that the probe remains healthy, and that the science team is preparing its case for extending the mission for another three years. That includes identifying potential targets for a future flyby.

“Amazingly, they are finding objects we will pass closest to many years from now, much farther out than previously predicted!” Stern said.

Here’s hoping that New Horizons’ plutonium-powered battery — and the funding for far-flung planetary exploration — will last that long.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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