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Pluto’s first place names win official blessing

Pluto map
Pluto’s first official surface-feature names are marked on this map, compiled from images and data gathered by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its flight past Pluto in 2015. (IAU Map)

Some of the best-known places on Pluto, including the heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio, have finally gone legit. But lots of other places, such as Cthulhu Regio, are still in the dark.

That’s the upshot of today’s announcement from the International Astronomical Union, confirming that 14 features on Pluto’s surface have been approved for official use.

The decision from the IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature comes more than two years after NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past Pluto and gave scientists their first-ever detailed look at the dwarf planet.

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Peace pact reached over Pluto’s map

160714-pluto6
A composite image shows Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left). Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

It’s taken a year and a half, but the International Astronomical Union and the science team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission have finally struck a deal for naming the features on Pluto and its moons.

The agreement, announced today, will open the way for the already well-known “informal” names for places on Pluto, such as Tombaugh Regio and Sputnik Planum, to become formal.

It also allows for features on Charon, Pluto’s biggest moon, to be officially associated with fictional characters and locales – including Mordor from “Lord of the Rings,” Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” and Princess Leia from “Star Wars.”

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IAU reveals its first list of exoplanet names

Image: Hot Jupiter planet
An artist’s conception shows a “hot Jupiter” around an alien star. One of the first hot Jupiters to be detected, 55 Cancri b, has been given the name Galileo. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

After a crowdsourcing campaign that lasted more than a year, the International Astronomical Union has issued its first-ever list of approved names for extrasolar planets – a lineup of 31 worlds, including some famous discoveries.

Among the new names to get to know are Aegir, also known as Epsilon Eridani b, one of the closest known exoplanets at a distance of 10 light-years; Dagon, a.k.a. Fomalhaut b, the first exoplanet to be detected directly in visible wavelengths; and Dimidium, a.k.a. 51 Pegasi b, the first exoplanet to be discovered around a sunlike star. Another crowd-pleaser is 55 Cancri b, a hot Jupiter-type planet that’s been named Galileo in honor of the famous 17th-century astronomer.

The spookiest name on the list may well be Poltergeist, which is more memorable than the planet’s scientific name, PSR 1257+12 c. It’s one of the first planets detected beyond the solar system, circling a pulsar in the constellation Virgo.

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Science gives Pluto its day in the sun

Image: Pluto's edge
NASA’s New Horizons probe captured this backlit image of Pluto as it flew past the dwarf planet on July 14. Scattered sunlight reveals numerous haze layers within Pluto’s thin atmosphere, while the surprisingly diverse surface landscape indicates ongoing geological activity. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The first peer-reviewed scientific paper about the New Horizons probe’s July flyby past Pluto lays out puzzling evidence that suggests the dwarf planet isn’t frozen in time. Rather, its smooth plains, high mountains and nitrogen glaciers are leading the NASA mission’s researchers to suspect that it’s geologically active even now.

“Pluto’s still got an engine, and it’s still running,” principal investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute told journalists in advance of the paper’s publication today by the journal Science.

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Some of Pluto’s names may not fly

Image: Pluto
The heart-shaped area that’s prominent in this New Horizons picture of Pluto is known as Tombaugh Regio. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Some of the best-known names on Pluto — ranging from the Sputnik plains to the Hillary and Norgay mountains and the dark Cthulhu Regio — may never appear on the International Astronomical Union’s maps, due to a tiff over terminology.

Those are just a few of the informal names that have raised questions from members of the IAU panel charged with approving the nomenclature for the dwarf planet’s geographical features. The names were selected by the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto after a months-long online naming campaign at OurPluto.org.

“Frankly, we would have preferred that the New Horizons team had approached us before putting all these informal names everywhere,” said Rosaly Lopes, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is a member of the IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.

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