Pluto: Planet of the Nerds?

NASA’s New Horizons mission completed its historic flyby of Pluto yesterday, giving us our first close-up look at the dwarf planet that marks the exit ramp from our solar system into the galaxy beyond. Earth began receiving images today (yes, a day later; it’s a very long-distance call). The pictures will give us our closet glimpse yet of Pluto and its satellites, revealing previously unknown features. The New Horizons team, in collaboration with the SETI Institute, crowdsourced names for the planet’s topography with the Our Pluto project. Judging from the suggested names, recently demoted Pluto may regain some status as the Planet of the Nerds.

In case you’re not up on your mythology, Pluto is not just Mickey Mouse’s dog: he’s originally the Roman god of the underworld. This inspired Our Pluto participants to pay homage to their favorite troglodytes. Some honored other dark deities, such as fellow underworld lords Krun and Ala; Mayan death gods Vucub-Came and Hun-Came; and Meng-p’o, the Buddhist goddess of forgetfulness and oblivion. After paying due diligence to mythology, however, things got geeky.

A dark area near Pluto’s south pole has been dubbed Cthulhu, after H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled monster-god. Cthulhu won the “Underworld Beings” category by a landslide with 39 percent of the vote (perhaps he should announce his candidacy for the 2016 US presidential election with all the other slimy creatures). Tolkien’s balrog would be a great choice for running mate: the scourge of Moria earned a close second with 34 percent of votes.

The fan convention doesn’t stop on Pluto. Its five moons—Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra—offer a wealth of unnamed features begging for nerdy nicknames. Proposed monikers include obvious candidates like Spock and Vader, names of great science fiction writers like Ursula LeGuin and Douglas Adams, and even a bid to commemorate Laika, the first dog in space.

None of these names are official yet, but they may eventually be presented to the International Astronomical Union for formal designation. What better way to celebrate the stories that inspired us to explore the stars than inscribing them on maps of alien worlds? Perhaps when our spacefaring descendants walk on Mount Spock or Bradbury Crater, those names will seem as mythological as Pluto and Charon: tales from an ancient civilization that dreamed of a grander universe.

Read more about the geeky geography of Pluto from Popular Mechanics and the Huffington Post.

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