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February 11, 2013

Pluto: Two moons need names, and you can help

Posted in: Science

pluto contest 1 Pluto: Two moons need names, and you can help

This photo provided and annotated by NASA / Hubble Space Telescope shows the five moons in their orbits around Pluto. The smallest moons — no more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) across — were discovered in the last two years and are currently referred to as P4 and P5. (AP Photo / NASA / Hubble Space Telescope)

pluto contest2 Pluto: Two moons need names, and you can help

This file image provided by NASA on Feb. 22, 2006, from its Hubble Space Telescope shows Pluto and three of its five moons. (AP Photo / NASA)

Two of Pluto’s moons need naming, and scientists are asking for your help.

The moons are fairly recent discoveries, which is why they haven’t been given official names yet. The one  currently known as P4 was discovered in the summer of 2011. The one currently designated as P5 was discovered in the summer of 2012.

Space discovery tradition holds that the person who finds a new object in space has 10 years to suggest a name for it.  But not just any old name will do — the International Astronomical Union has rules for these things. The proposed name should be 16 characters or less in length, only a single word, pronounceable (so no elaborate set of initials), non-offensive, and shouldn’t sound too much like the name of another minor planet or natural planetary satellite.

PHOTOS: Awesome images from space

By this convention, the  naming of P4 and P5 falls to Mark Showalter, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute who led one of the teams that found the two moons. Showalter has already had some experience finding and naming moons — he discovered and named Pan, the innermost moon of Saturn, and two moons of Uranus — Mab and Cupid.

But this time, he decided to open the naming experience to the public. He created a website called Pluto Rocks, where people can vote on a new name for the moons.

Unfortunately, the naming field is not wide open. Pluto has three other named moons — Charon, Hydra and Nix — all pulled from Greek mythology and all related to Hades and the underworld. So Showalter has selected 12 potential names and is asking people to vote on their favorite.

The voting started on Monday and will end at noon EST on Feb. 25. As of this writing, Styx (as in the river) is in the lead with 8,000 and Cerberus (the three-headed dog who guards the gates of the underworld) is in second.

Showalter is willing to consider additional names, however, and there is a place on the site for a write-in ballot.

But Batman and Robin, for instance, won’t work.

— Deborah Netburn

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