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Your chance to name features on Pluto and Charon

Amy Tyndall, News reporter
Mar 22, 2015, 2:11 UTC

Sen—A new campaign to get the public involved in choosing names for features on the surface of Pluto and its largest moon Charon has been launched by the SETI Institute.

The competition's timing coincides with the New Horizons spacecraft's arrival at Pluto—which was demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006—and its five moons. 

New Horizons officially began its science mission in Februrary. The first high-resolution images of the planet will be taken in July.

The naming campaign, called "Our Pluto", is coordinated by the SETI Institute and planetary scientist and prolific moon discoverer Dr Mark Showalter, a senior research scientist at SETI and member of the New Horizons Science Team.

A ballot has been created on a dedicated website, www.ourpluto.org, which lists various names taken from the history of exploration, literature of exploration, and mythology of the underworld—the latter being from which Pluto and its moons all take their names.

The public have been invited to vote for their favourites, and indeed to put forward any suggestions that are not currently listed.

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The two images in this animation are the first two photos of New Horizons' scientific observations of Pluto. Image credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Children are also being encouraged to get invovled by having their own simplified ballot, where they can choose their favourite theme based on books, TV shows and movies. Voting for options such as "Alice in Wonderland", "Star Trek" and "Where the Wild Things Are" could mean that features are named after the contents of their stories.

Each type of feature will be assigned a different theme. For example, volcanoes may all be given names taken from gods and godesses, craters may have names taken from fictional exploration vessels, and channels may be named after historic scientists and engineers.

The public votes will help the SETI team to decide which names to put forward to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), responsible for the official naming of celestial bodies and features, after the ballot closes on Apr. 7, 2015.

Although the team will strive to be true to the results of the ballot and put the most popular names at the top of the list, they state that they will also be looking to keep the chosen names as culturally diverse as possible and may have to rearrange the ranking slightly as a result.

"Pluto belongs to everyone, so we want everyone to be involved in making the map of this distant world," said Showalter in a statement. The IAU will ultimately have the final say on which names will be used.

This is not the first time that a public voting campagin has been used in a naming process. Pluto's two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx, were also named via such an initiative, and indeed Showalter led the team that discovered them using data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

"The difference is that last time we only needed two names, whereas now we could need more than a hundred," Showalter said in a statement. "We are eager to gather recommendations from people all over the world." 

You can take part in the voting at www.ourpluto.org