You Could Name Pluto’s Moons

This image, taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows five moons orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet Pluto. The green circle marks the unnamed moon, designated P5, as photographed by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on July 7 2012. The unnamed moon P4 was uncovered in Hubble imagery in 2011. Credit: NASA; ESA; M. Showalter, SETI Institute

The discoverers of Pluto’s two tiniest moons are inviting the public to help select names for the new moons.

By tradition, the moons of Pluto have names associated with Hades and the underworld. People now can vote by visiting http://plutorocks.seti.org

“The Greeks were great storytellers, and they have given us a colorful cast of characters to work with,” said Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. He and the teams of astronomers who made the discoveries will select two names based on the outcome of the voting.

Until now, these small moons have been referred to as, simply, “P4” and “P5”. Like Pluto’s three other moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra, they need to be assigned names derived from Greek or Roman mythology.

Visitors to the website will also be able to submit write-in suggestions. These will be reviewed by the team and could be added to the ballot. Voting will end Feb. 25, 2013. The final names will be announced after their formal approval by the International Astronomical Union.

P4 was discovered in 2011 in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. P5 was discovered a year later during a more intensive search for previously unseen objects orbiting the distant, dwarf planet. The moons are only 20 to 30 km (15 to 20 miles) across. Currently, Pluto is receiving special scrutiny by astronomers, because NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is slated to arrive there in July 2015.

A Google+ Hangout took place on February 11 with two of the scientists involved in the discovery. Mark Showalter is from the SETI Institute, and Hal Weaver is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Questions from viewers were taken during the event using Twitter (hashtag #PlutoRocks), the SETI Institute Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/SETIInstitute] and the Google hangout.

Pluto is not thought to be capable of supporting life, but studying the small, distant world can help scientists understand the diversity of rocky bodies in the Universe. Determining the composition of Pluto can also help astrobiologists catalog the many materials that occur naturally in our solar system. This information is important in understanding the types of molecules that could have been available for the origin of life on the early Earth.