February 11, 2013
Astronomers Invite Public To Help Name Pluto’s New Moons
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Ever wanted your say in the naming of a cosmic object such as a moon? Well, scientists are opening up that door by asking people to vote for the name of two of Pluto's small moons.
P4 was first discovered in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2011, while P5 was discovered a year later during a more intensive search for previously unseen objects orbiting the dwarf planet. Astronomers say that the moons are only about 15 to 20 miles across.
Visitors who wish to participate in the naming of the moons can submit their write-in suggestions via a webpage provided by the SETI Institute. They can cast their votes on a variety of names including Acheron, Alecto, Cerberus, Erebus, Eurydice, Hercules, Hypnos, Lethe, Obol, Orpheus, Persephone and Styx.
Although there is a list of names for users to choose from and vote for, they can also submit unique suggestions by filling out a write-in form for a new name that is not already on the list and explaining the reason why this name should be adopted.
"Feel free to come back, but please do not vote more than once per day, just so everybody gets a fair chance to make their opinion known," Mark Showalter, who was involved in the P4 and P5 discovery and works at SETI Institute, said in a posting about the ballot. "We will take your votes and suggestions into consideration when we propose the names for P4 and P5 to the international astronomical community."
Scientists involved in the discovery of the moons will be joining in on a Google+ Hangout session today, at 11:00 AM (Pacific), to answer questions from viewers. Showalter and Hal Weaver, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, will be answering users' questions over Twitter, Facebook and Google, who have included the hashtag #PlutoRocks.
Pluto was originally named by a little girl who suggested it to Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered the tiny distant dwarf planet.
"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," Showalter said.
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is still a couple of years shy of completing its 9.5-year journey across the Solar System to explore Pluto and its moons. When New Horizons was first launched in 2006, astronomers had just discovered Nix and Hydra a year earlier and were not yet aware of the existence of P4 and P5.
Although the spacecraft will offer even more information about the former planet, there is a strong possibility that space debris could cripple New Horizons equipment before it completes its journey, according to NASA.
“We may not know whether to fire our engines on New Horizons and bail out to safer distances until just 10 days before reaching Pluto, so this may be a bit of a cliff-hanger. Stay tuned,” Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, said back in October.