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Naming Pluto's two new moons
July 18, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Even though it's been demoted to a dwarf planet, Pluto sure does have a lot of moons: five, to be exact, with probably more yet to be discovered.
Scientists spotted one of the tiny moons last year and announced earlier this month that they've found one even smaller, a moon that is six to 15 miles across. The one they found last year is 8 to 21 miles wide. The other three moons are Charon, 650 miles wide, discovered in 1978, and two smaller moons discovered in 2005: Nix and Hydra.
Being more language-oriented than scientific-minded, I'm more interested in what they name the two new moons than I am in how they came to exist. The two new moons won't get names until the scientists determine whether there are any more new moons. I guess they want to name them all in one fell swoop if they find more. Just how small can a moon get, anyway? Would it still be called a moon if it's 5 miles wide or 1 mile wide?
Pluto was the god of the underworld in Roman mythology (the Greeks called the same god Hades) and the names of the moons are associated with Greek or Roman myths surrounding him and the underworld. Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute told a reporter that, when it does come time to propose names for the moons, he wants names that will go together. He likes the idea of calling the two new moons Orpheus and Eurydice.
Those names would fit, since they both have a connection to the Pluto/Hades myth. In Greek mythology, charming musician Orpheus snuck into the underworld after his beautiful young wife died, sneaking past the three-headed dog and the other horrors guarding the dead, and actually persuaded Hades to let Eurydice return from the dead. Hades set just one condition: Orpheus could not look back at his wife before they had emerged from Hades. He couldn't resist looking back just once to see if she was following him, though, and Eurydice had to return to Hades.
I don't know if those two tiny moons are worthy of such big names. Last year, when they announced they'd found the fourth moon, I suggested they name the moon Melinoe, after the Greek goddess of ghosts and nightmares. Someone else suggested Hypnos, the god of sleep. Thanatos, his twin brother, was the god of peaceful death and might be a good name too.
On the other hand, maybe such tiny moons should have names befitting their size: I saw someone else suggest calling it "punica" after the scientific name for the pomegranate, which is closely associated with Hades and the underworld. He argued that maybe the name representing a pomegranate seed would be appropriate. Someone else suggested "Obolus," which was the name of the coin that Greeks put in the mouth of the deceased so he could pay to be ferried by Charon across the river Styx that led to the underworld. Other people have suggested place names like Styx and Acheron and Lethe, all names of rivers in the underworld.
People have suggested the names of other children of the goddess Nyx, including Alecto, a Greek goddess representing unceasing anger. She was one of the Furies. Her name seems a little larger than life to use for a moon that might be as tiny as 8 miles wide.
Even though Cerberus has already been used for astronomical bodies, lots of people think that the name of Hades' scary three-headed dog should be used for this moon. I think that's one of the most logical suggestions, especially since Hydra was Hades' pet snake.
Any name they give the new moons has to be related to the Hades/Pluto myth and can't have been used for another moon or asteroid or some other astronomical body. There are already asteroids called Orpheus and Eurydice, but I wonder if they'd make an exception if they are running out of names.
What would you name Pluto's latest moons?
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