Pluto may have been demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006, but that hasn’t stopped astronomers from studying this intriguing plutoid. NASA recently announced the discovery of a fourth moon, be it a “mini-moon,” circling the former planet. Dubbed “P4” for the time being, the hunt is on for an appropriate name.
The practice of naming planets after gods and goddesses can be traced back to the Babylonians, but it is the naming conventions of the Romans that we continue to refer to today. The International Astronomical Union has established a set of guidelines for planetary nomenclature that is monitored by a group of scientists.
Pluto’s name comes from a lovely and unlikely source. Fueled by a passion for classical mythology and astronomy, Venetia Burney, an eleven-year-old schoolgirl from Oxford, England, proposed the name Pluto to her grandfather (a librarian at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University) who in turn passed it on to astronomers at the Lowell Observatory. From a list of three prospective names, Venetia’s suggestion won out. For her achievement, Venetia’s grandfather rewarded her with five pounds.
Of the now four moons circling Pluto, Charon is the largest. The name is a derivation of the Greek Kharon – the ferryman of the dead over the river Styx. Charon is closely associated with the god Hades, whom the Romans link with Pluto.
The two remaining moons, Nix and Hydra are named in part for their initials NH, a reference to the New Horizons robotic spacecraft mission; or perhaps the names suggest the watchful eye the two keep over Pluto.
Nix is derived from the Greek Nyx, the goddess of darkness and night, and mother of Charon. The alternate spelling (replacing the y with an i) is to avoid confusion with the asteroid called 3908 Nyx.
In keeping with tradition, from what figure of Greek mythology do you think this newly discovered satellite should be named?