Star Trek Fans Pick Vulcan As Name For One Of Pluto's Moons
February 26, 2013

Star Trek Fans Pick Vulcan As Name For One Of Pluto’s Moons

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Star Trek fans everywhere have a reason to rejoice today as a contest to name one of Pluto´s two previously unnamed moons ended with one Spock-tacular name reaching, for lack of a better term, warp speed.

William Shatner, the man best known for his role as Captain James Tiberius Kirk on the 1960´s television sci-fi classic, which later spawned a large movie franchise and several spin-offs, proposed Vulcan as the name of one of the dwarf planet´s five moons orbiting in the outer Solar System.

Vulcan, as all Trekkies know, is the fictional home world of the logical Mr. Spock in Star Trek. Spock, played by Boston native and actor Leonard Nimoy, is half-human and half-Vulcan, a race of beings of the planet Vulcan.

Upon hearing of the winning entry, Mr. Nimoy had this to say to the Associated Press: "If my people were emotional they would say they are pleased."

Shatner made the proposal to name one of Pluto´s two unnamed moons Vulcan in a Feb. 12 tweet to his some 1.3 million followers. That Twitter post read, “So what do you think of the idea of naming the two moons of Pluto Vulcan and Romulus?” Romulus, of course, is another fictional planet in the Star Trek universe.

As for Romulus, the SETI Institute, the group behind the naming contest, declined to include it in the voting round. But as for Vulcan, SETI maintained it had only been considered for its mythological connections and not based on the Star Trek universe´s Vulcan planet. While Romulus could also have been included for its mythological ties, it didn´t make the final cut due to it already being named as a moon in another real-world celestial setting.

Despite inclusion as a mythological term only, Vulcan held true as the most popular vote during the online naming event, in which the public was given the chance to vote on the name for Pluto´s two moons that had yet to be given nomenclature.

It is likely Shatner´s Twitter proposal led the charge in getting Vulcan catapulted to the head of the pack.

When the contest began, he followed with the following tweet:  “Did you hear? They added the name Vulcan to the list of possible names for Pluto's moons! You did it! I'm so happy.”

He continued his Twittery proposals at least a dozen times throughout the contest, leaving tweets such as: “It's a new day- at least here in Los Angeles- have you voted for Vulcan?”

After the contest closed on Monday morning, Shatner shared a final tweet on the matter: “174,062 votes and Vulcan came out on top of the voting for the naming of Pluto's moons. Thank you to all who voted!”

By the end of voting Monday morning, February 25, 2013 at 6:00 am EST, Vulcan stood out as the clear winner with nearly 175,000 votes of the 450,000 cast. Not only did Vulcan garner the most votes, but was the only name to soar past 100,000 votes. The second place winner, Cerberus, received 99,432 votes.

When the contest began, election organizer Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer with SETI´s Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, said he doubted Vulcan was worthy of serious consideration for a name of one of Pluto´s moons. He explained there are rules that must be followed when it comes to naming moons in the Solar System.

On the contest website, Pluto Rocks, Showalter explained that traditionally, “the names of Pluto's moons come from Greek and Roman mythology, and are related to the ancient tales about Hades and the Underworld.”

Vulcan was fortunate enough to make the final cut because of its mythological connections. Being the name of the Roman god of fire makes it eligible as a candidate. But then again, the name was once attributed to another planet–although later found to be nonexistent–that was thought to orbit the Sun on a much closer trajectory than Mercury.

“Some of the world´s greatest astronomers spent quite a long time looking for it and they never saw it because it isn´t there,” Showalter explained in a Google+ hangout. “Some people say, ℠No, we should save the name Vulcan for some place that´s big and hot.´ I guess one response to that would be, ℠Well, we found all the places [in the solar system] that are big and hot and they´ve all got names now.´”

So Showalter decided to (borrowing the term from Star Trek) 'boldly go where no man has gone before' and added Vulcan to the list of candidates.

However, while Vulcan blew away the competition, the SETI Institute isn´t bound by the vote. They did say in their contest rules ahead of the election they would consider whichever names that come out on top. But even if SETI was to consider Vulcan as one of Pluto´s moon names, it still would need to get past the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which has the final say in naming.

P4 and P5, the fourth and fifth moons of Pluto, were discovered over the past two years by the Hubble Space Telescope. The ten astronomers that were behind the discoveries of the new moons will take the voting results into account when they hand over the names to the IAU. It still could be a month or more before final naming is made.

Showalter, who is also a member of the IAU, said he would step away when the deliberations for the official naming process begins. But he did tell MSN News on Monday at the conclusion of the contest that he was “leaning toward the popular vote.”

Despite that lean, another problem could arise. It seems asteroids that supposedly orbit close to the Sun are called vulcanoids, which could cause some confusion if one of Pluto´s names were to be given Vulcan as a name.

And if that doesn´t deter assigners, another issue might. Vulcan, known as Hephaestus in his Greek aspect, is only a nephew of Pluto and lacks a direct connection to the Roman god of the underworld. This may upend Vulcan´s run as a leading candidate.

Another thing going against naming one of the moons Vulcan is the connection to fire. Vulcan is associated with lava and volcanoes, and the distant dwarf planet and its moons are anything but hot.

But with Vulcan aside, second place Cerberus, a Roman three-headed dog which guards the entrance to the underworld, has its own issues. Cerberus, which received nearly a hundred thousand votes, is already named for an asteroid in the Solar System. Showalter said if the name is considered, it would likely be assigned its Greek version, Kerberos.

Rounding out the top five in the election results are: Styx with about 88,000 votes, Persephone with nearly 69,000 votes, and Orpheus with just over 51,000 votes.

In total, more than 450,000 votes were cast, with about half of those coming from the US. The ballot was available in more than a dozen languages and, according to Showalter, nearly every country on the planet got at least a couple votes in.

Besides the top five, the voters had several names to choose from, including Acheron, Erebus, Hercules-Heracles, Hypnos, Tantalus, and Thanatos, as well as others. In all, there were 21 names on the ballot, gleaned from more than 30 nominees that poured in from written submissions.

The two names the IAU chooses for P4 and P5 will join three other moons orbiting Pluto: Hydra, Nix, and Charon.

Us Trekkies can now only hold on to hope as the final process for naming is set to begin. In the end, if it doesn't go well, then  a little Vulcan nerve pinch may be in order.