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Contestants Give Artful Names to Five Craters on Mercury

Image: Mercury craters
An image of Mercury is marked with the locations of the five craters that were the focus of a naming contest. IAU /NASA / Messenger

Question: What do an Irish composer, an Akkadian princess, an Armenian-Canadian photographer, an Egyptian singer and a Mexican painter have in common? Answer: They're all artistic types — and they're the namesakes for five craters on the planet Mercury, thanks to a contest celebrating the end of NASA's Messenger mission.

After spending four years studying Mercury from orbit, the Messenger probe is due to dive into the planet's surface on Thursday. The mission's outreach team, in coordination with the Carnegie Institution for Science, worked with the International Astronomical Union to solicit names for five impact craters. The general public responded with 3,600 submissions.

The IAU's rules require new craters on Mercury to be named after an artist, composer or writer who was famous for more than 50 years and has been dead for more than three years. Seventeen semifinalists were selected, and then the IAU picked the five winners. Sorry, Elvis fans: There's no Presley Crater ... yet. But there are these artful additions to the list:

  • Carolan, named after Turlough O'Carolan, an Irish composer from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The name was suggested by Belgium's Fergal Donnelly as well as Joseph Brusseau and Reane Morrison of the U.S.
  • Enheduanna, an Akkadian princess who lived in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur from 2285 to 2250 B.C. and is regarded by many scholars as the earliest author to be known by name. India's Gagan Toor made the suggestion.
  • Karsh, named after 20th-century Armenian-Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. Elizabeth Freeman Rosenzweig of the U.S. came up with the name.
  • Kulthum, in honor of Umm Kulthum, an Egyptian singer, songwriter and film actress active between the 1920s and the 1970s. The name was suggested by Saudi Arabia's Malouk Ba-Isa, Switerland's Riana Rakotoarimanan, and Yehya Hassouna, David Suttles, Thorayya Said Giovanelli and Matt Giovanelli of the U.S.
  • Rivera, named after 20th-century Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera. The suggestion came from Ricardo Martinez and Arturo Gutierrez of Mexico as well as Rebecca Hare and Jose Martinez of the U.S.

If you want to get in on the celestial name game, it's not too late. The IAU is working with Zooniverse to solicit names for exoplanets in 20 alien star systems — including Epsilon Eridani, which some "Star Trek" fans have linked to Mr. Spock's Vulcan (even though we all know that Spock's home planet is in the 40 Eridani system instead).

Suggestions have to be submitted through an astronomy club or organization that has registered with the IAU. The deadline for organizational registration is June 1, and the deadline for submitting names is June 15. Once the list is drawn up, the names will be put to a public vote. The winners will be announced in August during the IAU's General Assembly in Honolulu.