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Pluto place names
Pluto’s first official surface-feature names are marked on this map, compiled from images and data gathered by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its flight through the Pluto system in 2015. (IAU Map)

Some of the best-known places on Pluto, including the heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio, have finally gone legit. But lots of other places, such as Cthulhu Regio, are still in the dark.

That’s the upshot of today’s announcement from the International Astronomical Union, confirming that 14 features on Pluto’s surface have been approved for official use.

The decision from the IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature comes more than two years after NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past Pluto and gave scientists their first-ever detailed look at the dwarf planet.

New Horizons’ scientists set up a crowdsourcing campaign to gather suggestions for place names on Pluto and its moons. The New Horizons team earmarked scores of names for informal use, in anticipation that the IAU would provide its official sign-off later.

Pluto and Charon
A composite image shows enhanced-color views of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left). The bright heart-shaped region is now officially known as Tombaugh Regio, and the smooth left half of the “heart” is Sputnik Planitia. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

However, some in the IAU were a bit miffed over some of the naming categories that were set up, including names that were inspired by past space missions, spacecraft or earthly explorers. Their objections would have ruled out such names as Sputnik Planitia, Hillary Montes and Tenzing Montes.

It took until this February to smooth out the disagreements and open the way for New Horizons’ scientists to submit their name suggestions for approval. As it turns out, Sputnik, Hillary and Tenzing were among the first to get a thumbs-up.

“These names highlight the importance of pushing to the frontiers of discovery,” Rita Schulz, chair of the IAU working group, said today in a news release. “We appreciate the contribution of the general public in the form of their naming suggestions and the New Horizons team for proposing these names to us.”

Lots more names — including Cthulhu Regio, a dark, vaguely whale-shaped feature on Pluto that was informally named after the fictional deity in H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories — are expected to make their way through the approval pipeline in the months ahead. For now, here are the first 14:

  • Tombaugh Regio, honoring Clyde Tombaugh (1906–1997), Pluto’s discoverer.
  • Burney Crater, honoring Venetia Burney (1918–2009), who as an 11-year-old schoolgirl suggested the name for Pluto.
  • Sputnik Planitia, a plain in Tombaugh Regio that’s named after Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite.
  • Tenzing Montes and Hillary Montes, mountain ranges named after Tenzing Norgay (1914–1986) and Sir Edmund Hillary (1919–2008), the Indian/Nepali Sherpa and New Zealand mountaineer who were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest and return safely.
  • Al-Idrisi Montes, honoring Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi (1100–1165/66), a noted Arab mapmaker and geographer.
  • Djanggawul Fossae, a network of long, narrow depressions named for the Djanggawuls, three ancestral beings in indigenous Australian mythology who travelled between the island of the dead and Australia.
  • Sleipnir Fossa, named for the powerful, eight-legged horse of Norse mythology that carried the god Odin into the underworld.
  • Virgil Fossae, honoring Virgil, one of the greatest Roman poets and Dante’s fictional guide through hell and purgatory in “The Divine Comedy.”
  • Adlivun Cavus, a deep depression named for Adlivun, the underworld in Inuit mythology.
  • Hayabusa Terra, a large land mass saluting the Japanese spacecraft and mission (2003–2010) that returned the first asteroid sample.
  • Voyager Terra, honoring the two NASA spacecraft that were launched on an interplanetary “grand tour” in 1977.
  • Tartarus Dorsa, a ridge named for Tartarus, the deepest pit of the underworld in Greek mythology.
  • Elliot Crater, recognizing James Elliot (1943–2011), an MIT researcher who pioneered the use of stellar occultations to study the solar system — leading to discoveries such as the rings of Uranus and the first detection of Pluto’s thin atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the New Horizons spacecraft is continuing onward toward its next target for observations, an icy object (or two icy objects) known as 2014 MU69.

New Horizons and 2014 MU69
An artist’s concept shows NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flying past a possible binary object known as 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019. (NASA Illustration / Carlos Hernandez)

Just this week, NASA announced that the science team has settled on the detailed trajectory for a flyby that’s scheduled to take place on Jan. 1, 2019. If the way is clear, as hoped, New Horizons will zoom past 2014 MU69 at a distance of 2,175 miles, which is less than a third of the minimum distance for 2015’s Pluto flyby.

The encounter will take place when New Horizons is a billion miles beyond Pluto’s orbit, and more than 4 billion miles away from Earth. And there could be an extra twist: Recent ground observations suggest that 2014 MU69 may actually consist of two micro-worlds orbiting one another.

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