Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

2-15 Contest to Name Pluto's Newest Moons

21513 Pluto moons

SANTA FE – Many New Mexicans were more than a little pushed out of shape when Pluto was demoted from being our solar system's ninth planet.
The vote happened late in an International Astronomical Union meeting when many members already had left for home. Pluto just didn't act enough like a planet many scientists argued.
One way Pluto does act like a planet is that it has moons – quite a few of them as it turns out. In the last two years, the Hubble Space Telescope has found two new moons, bringing Pluto's total to five.
The reason many New Mexicans were upset about Pluto's demotion is that it was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, who spent most of his life in New Mexico. For many years he headed the astronomy department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
Besides Pluto was the only planet discovered in the United States. Tombaugh worked as an assistant at Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona.
The scientists who discovered Pluto have decided to conduct a contest to recommend a name for Pluto's two newest moons. It only seems proper that the names come from New Mexico. Astronomers often ask to have heavenly bodies named after them, so this is a nice gesture.
The rules for the naming contest can be found at
The contest is a brief one. It ends at 10 a.m. on Monday, February 25. The astronomers have picked some names from Greek Mythology. You can vote for one of them or come up with a name of your own. The two names with the most votes will win their contest.
While picking a name of one of Pluto's friends from the Mickey Mouse comic strip would be fun it likely wouldn't be a winner because it doesn't fit with the theme of Pluto and its first three moons.
The contest rules list the possible names and where they fit into the Greek Mythology of the underworld. Pluto was the Greek King of the underworld. Greek mythology is so rich in stories and characters that many choices are available.
Walt Disney hadn't invented Pluto yet when it was named by an 11 year old girl in Oxford, England, who was interested in Greek Mythology. She thought the name was appropriate because of the cold and darkness of the distant planet.
The name, Pluto, especially appealed to astronomers at Lowell Observatory because its first two letters are the initials of the observatory's founder Perceval Lowell.
Walt Disney certainly helped popularize the name, Pluto, as did Glenn Seaborg, who named the element Plutonium. At that time, it was popular to name newly discovered elements after planets, e.g. uranium and neptunium.
The first three of Pluto's moons are Charon, Nix and Hydra. The two latter moons got their names because the initials, "N" and "H" are the initials of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft now headed toward Pluto. The New Horizons project already was off the ground before Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet.

This column is shorter because of my haste to get it out as soon as possible because of contest deadline


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