Two mountain ranges on Pluto have been named after Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary respectively by the International Astronomical Union, which for the first time, has officially approved the naming of 14 features on the icy dwarf planet. These are the first geological features on the planet to be named following the close flyby by the New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015.
The names pay homage to the underworld mythology, pioneering space missions, historic pioneers who crossed new horizons in exploration, and scientists and engineers associated with Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. This is the first set of official names of surface features on Pluto to be approved by the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the internationally recognised authority for naming celestial bodies and their surface features.
NASA’s New Horizons team proposed the names to the IAU following the first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons by the New Horizons spacecraft. Tenzing Montes and Hillary Montes are mountain ranges honouring 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.
Some of the names were suggested by members of the public during the ‘Our Pluto’ campaign, which was launched as a partnership between the IAU, the New Horizons project and the SETI Institute. Other names had been used informally by the New Horizons science team to describe the many regions, mountain ranges, plains, valleys and craters discovered during the first close-up look at the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.
“We’re very excited to approve names recognising people of significance to Pluto and the pursuit of exploration as well as the mythology of the underworld. These names highlight the importance of pushing to the frontiers of discovery,” said Rita Schulz, chair of the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.
“We appreciate the contribution of the general public in the form of their their naming suggestions and the New Horizons team for proposing these names to us,” said Schulz. More names are expected to be proposed to the IAU, both for Pluto and for its moons.
The approved Pluto surface feature names include the Burney crater that honours Venetia Burney (1918-2009), who as an 11-year-old schoolgirl suggested the name “Pluto” for Clyde Tombaugh’s newly discovered planet. Sputnik Planitia is a large plain named after Sputnik 1, the first space satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.
Djanggawul Fossae defines 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, creating the landscape and filling it with vegetation. Sleipnir Fossa is named for the powerful, eight-legged horse of Norse mythology that carried the god Odin into the underworld.
Virgil Fossae honours Virgil, one of the greatest Roman poets and Dante’s fictional guide through hell and purgatory in the Divine Comedy. Hayabusa Terra is a large land mass named in honour of the Japanese spacecraft and mission (2003-2010) that returned the first asteroid sample.
Voyager Terra honours the pair of NASA spacecraft, launched in 1977, that performed the first “grand tour” of all four giant planets. Tartarus Dorsa is a ridge named for Tartarus, the deepest, darkest pit of the underworld in Greek mythology.