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What would you name Pluto's latest moon?

July 26, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
Pluto should still be a planet, especially since they just found it has another moon.

Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet" status back in 2006, the same year my older nephew was born. When he starts school this fall, he'll learn that there are just eight major planets in the solar system and they'll probably forget to include the "dwarf planets." This is confusing, since one of the few things I remember (at least without looking it up) from elementary school science is in what order the planets orbit our sun. If he asks me, I'll have to remember to tell him there are eight, not nine, planets but in my heart of hearts I'll always count little Pluto as one of them.

Scientists just discovered that this so-called dwarf has a fourth moon. The first three Plutonian moons all have very important-sounding, foreboding mythological names: Charon, Nix, Hydra.

Pluto himself, or Hades, to use his Greek name, was the god of the underworld. Pluto is his Roman name and the Greek and Roman myths are nearly identical. One of the myths about the god is about why we have a winter and a summer. Hades kidnapped Persephone to be his wife and her mother, the goddess of the harvest, pined away without her and stopped making the plants grow. Finally, the god Zeus ordered Hades to let Persephone go back to her mother. But Hades had tricked Persephone into eating a pomegranate while she was in the underworld, which meant she had to spend part of the year with her husband in the underworld and part of it above ground with her mother. When she is with her mother, it is summer and when she returns to live with Hades, her mother is in mourning and it is winter.

The moons all have some sort of connection to the underworld. In Greek myth, Charon was the ferryman who took the dead across the river that separated the land of the living and the land of the dead. Nix or Nyx was the Greek goddess of the night and Charon's mother. Hydra was a nine-headed serpent who guarded one of the gates to the underworld.

Now the scientists have to decide on what to call the fourth moon, which is a fairly insignificant chunk of ice between 8 and 21 miles wide, but they're running out of names. They'd like to call it Cerberus, after the fearsome three-headed dog that was another of the guards at the gates of the underworld. Since the ball of ice is so small, it makes sense to name it after the scary dog. The problem is that there's already an asteroid named Cerberus. They could always change the spelling, but that's a little like cheating. The other obvious names, like Hades' wife, Persephone, are also already taken.

So what else could they name the dwarf planet's newest dwarfette? The Smithsonian has a blogger who likes the name Hypnos, as in the god of sleep. That does have a bit of a ring to it. Hypnos had a twin brother named Thanatos who was the god of death, which could also work, especially if they find another Plutonian moon and need another name.

But there are so many dark and gloomy associations with Pluto and its moons that I'd probably go even darker than the gods of sleep and death. My suggestion is the name of one of Hades' daughters, Melinoe, who was the goddess of ghosts and the reason dogs bark for no reason in the middle of the night when humans think no one is there. Melinoe was a ghoulish goddess whose limbs were half stark white and half pitch black. I bet this ball of ice looks similar.

Since the international body that names objects in the sky will have the final say, we'll probably have a long time to wait to see what the real name is. But I think the next time it meets that body should reconsider and give Pluto back his planetary status.


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