Feb. 14, 2013 at 8:48 PM ET
Just one day after astronomers asked Internet users to pick from a list of 12 names for Pluto's tiniest moons, they added a 13th name — Vulcan — at the urging of Star Trek icon William Shatner.
"Vulcan is the Roman god of lava and smoke, and the nephew of Pluto. (Any connection to the Star Trek TV series is purely coincidental, although we can be sure that Gene Roddenberry read the classics.) Thanks to William Shatner for the suggestion!" discovery team leader Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute wrote Tuesday in an update to the "Pluto Rocks" blog.
You don't have to be a hard-core Trek fan to know that Vulcan was the fictional home planet of Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared science officer on the original TV series' Starship Enterprise. Roddenberry was the series' creator. And long before he became a Priceline pitchman, Shatner played the Enterprise's skipper, Captain James T. Kirk.
The point of the "Pluto Rocks" balloting, which runs through Feb. 25, is to weigh public sentiment for the naming of Pluto's two most recently discovered moons, now known as P4 and P5. As the moons' discoverers, Showalter and his colleagues have the right to recommend formal names for adoption by the International Astronomical Union. They thought it would be fun to give the general public a non-binding advisory role.
The contest caught Shatner's eye, and he made a couple of suggestions in a Twitter update: "So what do you think of the idea of naming the two moons of Pluto Vulcan and Romulus? You have mythology, pos[itive] and neg[ative]."
Any voter can suggest write-in names, as Shatner did, but the names should refer to people, places or things in Greek or Roman mythology that have a connection to the underworld. Right now, the two favored names are Styx (which refers to a major river of the underworld as well as the rock band) and Cerberus or Kerberos (which refers to the underworld's guard dog as well as the modern-day network protocol).
More than 120,000 votes have been cast already, with less than 5,000 of them going to Vulcan — so Shatner would have to get those Vulcan votes multiplying like Tribbles to catch up to Styx and Cerberus. But that's not impossible, especially if he puts the word out to his 1.3 million Twitter followers.
As for Shatner's other suggestion, Romulus certainly has a connection to Roman mythology and Trek lore. In mythology, Romulus was one of the founders of Rome, while in the Star Trek universe, the name refers to the homeworld of a race that rivaled the Vulcans. However, one of the IAU's guidelines is that a proposed name should not be confused with pre-existing names for other celestial bodies. That poses "a bit of a problem," Showalter said.
"Romulus, along with his brother Remus, are the names of the moons of the asteroid 87 Silvia," he wrote. "They were discovered by a team led by my good colleague Franck Marchis, now a senior scientist at the SETI Institute."
Sorry, Captain. Because there's already a Romulus in this sector of the galaxy, scientists can't reuse the name. They just cannae do it.
Can you think of other mythological names with science-fiction connections? If they're not already taken, share your ideas in the comment section below — and send them along to the "Pluto Rocks" folks as well.
Update for 8:45 p.m. ET Feb. 14: Vulcan is now the top pick in the "Pluto Rocks" poll, with more than 60,000 votes out of the 234,720 responses registered. Styx and Cerberus are second and third on the list. Showalter has added eight more names to the ballot, bringing the total list to 21. The eight additions are Elysium, Hecate, Melinoe, Orthrus, Sisyphus, Tantalus, Tartarus and Thanatos. "Pluto needs more moons!" Showalter writes in a Cosmic Diary entry.
More about Pluto and its moons:
Check out Monday's Google+ Hangout about Pluto and the moon-naming project on the SETI Institute's website.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.