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Mount Spock? New Horizons’ Pluto Name List Will Please ‘Star Trek’ Fans

Image: Pluto

An artist's conception shows Pluto as scientists suspect it will appear during the July flyby of NASA's New Horizons probe. The dwarf planet is thought to have a faint atmosphere. JHUAPL / SwRI

The team behind NASA's New Horizons mission has drawn up its proposed list of names for yet-to-be-discovered geological features on Pluto and its moons — and the lineup ranges from Gilgamesh (the mythical hero of the Mesopotamian epic of the 22nd century B.C.) to Mr. Spock (the fictional Vulcan from the 23rd century A.D.).

There's plenty on the list to please "Star Trek" fans as well as those who love "Star Wars," the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft, and "The Wizard of Oz." The proposed names also evoke other sci-fi epics, real-life and fictional explorers, the biggest names in space exploration, and myths and legends from around the world.

Input for the list came from an "OurPluto" online survey that drew about 60,000 filled-in ballots and 15,000 write-in candidates, said Mark Showalter, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute who organized the naming campaign.

What's It Like on Pluto? 0:42

Showalter and the New Horizons team expect they'll have to give names to a legion of geographical discoveries when the probe flies past Pluto and its moons on July 14. That's why Showalter came up with the "OurPluto" campaign, which was modeled after an earlier exercise to name two Plutonian moons he helped discover.

As was the case for those two moons, Styx and Kerberos, it's up to the discoverers to propose names for craters, mountains and other geographical features. But then it's up to the International Astronomical Union to approve them. In this case, Showalter and his colleagues are seeking "pre-approval" for the names on the newly announced list.

"It's up to the IAU, but since the public was so invested in the process, we thought it was appropriate to let the public know what we're proposing," Showalter told NBC News.

Here's a sampling, but for the full list, you'll want to check out the proposal that's posted online.

  • Features on Pluto: The themes include space missions and spacecraft (Columbia and Challenger, Sputnik and Soyuz), scientists and engineers (Tombaugh, Lowell and Oort), historic explorers (Norgay, Hillary and Baré), underworld beings and locales (Cthulhu, Balrog and Pandemonium), and travelers to the underworld (Heracles, Virgil and Beatrice).
  • Features on Charon, Pluto's largest moon: Fictional explorers and travelers (Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Skywalker, Leia, Vader, Alice, Dorothy), fictional origins and destinations (Vulcan, Mordor, Tatooine), fictional vessels (Serenity, Tardis, Nostromo, Galactica), and authors, artists and directors who touched on exploration (Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Madeleine L'Engle).
  • Features on the moon Styx: River gods (Ethiopia's Eqqo, Egypt's Hapi, Zaire's Mbongo).
  • Features on the moon Nix: Deities of the night (Chandra, a Hindu moon god; Bodach, a Scottish goblin; Metsaka, a moon goddess of Mexico's Huichol people).
  • Features on the moon Kerberos: Dogs from literature, history and mythology (Laika and Toto).
  • Features on the moon Hydra: Legendary serpents and dragons (Jabberwock, Smaug and Falkor).

Showalter said the write-ins provided "some fantastic ideas that we are so grateful for." For example, he was embarrassed to learn that Sputnik had been left off the initial list of spacecraft names. "Luckily, the public had our back and fixed that egregious oversight," he said.

Image: Pluto
This picture of Pluto was captured on July 3 by the New Horizons probe's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager from a distance of 7.8 million miles (12.5 million kilometers). It shows a series of regularly spaced dark spots along Pluto's equatorial region. The image has been colorized using data that was collected by the spacecraft's Ralph instrument earlier in the mission. NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

For now, there's no requirement to use a particular name for a particular type of feature. But if Showalter were given the final say, the name of Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto's discoverer, would be attached to the dwarf planet's highest mountain. And the names of underworld monsters — such as Lovecraft's Cthulhu and Tolkien's Balrog — would go on the deepest craters.

"It's a perfect theme for craters, because craters are like holes in the ground," Showalter said.

Related: New Horizons Mission Thrills Pluto's First Family

He said the New Horizons team might have to start out giving names to geographical features on a provisional basis, pending IAU approval. Still more names could be put in the pipeline for later, but Showalter suspects that the folks in charge of the IAU name approval process will have their hands full with the more than 100 names on the initial list.

"I'm sure this is the largest single proposal they've ever seen," Showalter said.