Byline: Rob Verger
Got a great name for Pluto's satellites?
Pity poor Pluto. Once considered to be a full-fledged member of the planet club, it was officially relabeled as a dwarf planet in 2006. But it is, nonetheless, a fascinating celestial body--just ask Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute, who in 2011 was leading a team to search for possible rings around Pluto. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, he discovered something new: a fourth moon, dubbed P4. A year later, with the safety of NASA's approaching New Horizons spacecraft in mind (it will fly by Pluto in July 2015), a bigger effort was made to search for other moons, and voila, a fifth one, called P5, was discovered. The two moons are part of a complex system: Pluto's main moon, Charon, is about half its size and orbits every 6.5 days; the other three moons orbit the two inner bodies, making it, as Showalter points out, like a "binary planet."
But what to name the new moons? Showalter decided to put it to a vote for the general public. Since Pluto (also called Hades) is the god of the underworld, the designations of its already-named moons are generally connected with that theme: Charon and Hydra are characters in Hades's mythical realm; Nix is the night goddess, and in some versions of mythology, Charon's mother. The list of possible names the public could vote on included such figures as Eurydice, Persephone, and Orpheus.
Enter William Shatner. The actor, famous for playing Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series, suggested via Twitter that the two moons be called Vulcan and Romulus. Romulus was already taken, but there are no celestial bodies outside the Star Trek world that are actually called Vulcan. …