July 5, 2013

No Vulcan Way! Star Trek Fans Denied At Naming Pluto’s Moon

I reported earlier this week that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) released the new names of Pluto’s two smallest moons – known previously as P4 and P5. Discovered in 2011 and 2012 respectively, the SETI institute, in conjunction with the IAU, launched an online poll to select the new names.

With more than half a million people responding, and more than 30,000 write-in suggestions (voters could also simply select from a predetermined list from the IAU), the name Vulcan of Star Trek fame received the most votes.

Job done, right? Uhh, nope.

It appears the write-in name, promoted by both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, did not meet the criteria set forth by the IAU. Firstly, it had to be a unique name, one that does not appear anywhere else in astronomy. And second, it had to derive from the Roman or Greek mythology of the underworld, as do all of the objects associated with Pluto.

While Vulcan is the Roman God of volcanoes, Vulcan is not formally associated with the underworld. Ok, that technically makes sense. But what troubled me more was the notion that it was not an original name to astronomy.

As it happens, Vulcan is the name of the planet in our solar system that orbits the Sun near Mercury. Didn’t know there was another planet that orbited so close to the Sun? That’s because it does not exist.

So, one of the reasons that Vulcan was disqualified is that its name was used for a planet that was demonstrated to not exist about a hundred years ago. (It was proposed to exist to explain the strangeness of Mercury’s orbit. As it turns out, our physics was wrong, but it wasn’t until Einstein introduced general relativity that it became clear that Vulcan did not exist.) And for the record, one of the chosen names was Kerebus, which already appears in astronomy under an alternate spelling: Cerebus.

While I respect the decision, as one opens up a might dangerous door by letting things slide by when there is a technicality, I also understand why some folks are upset by the decision. Most notably, William Shatner:

“I’m sad,” he tweeted. “So they name a moon Kerebus because there’s already a Cerebus asteroid but a mythological planet knocks out Vulcan? Star Trek fans have had it rough. First JJ (Abrams) blows up Vulcan and now SETI finds a loophole to deny it from coming back!”

Though, apparently not everyone is entirely upset. After all, disqualifying Vulcan left the door open for the third place vote getter to move up and snag a place in history.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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