Pluto and its four smallest moons, as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on April 25 (scroll down for animation).
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Pluto and its four smallest moons, as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on April 25 (scroll down for animation).

Why Pluto’s Moons Turned William Shatner Into a Sad Volcano

Nearly two years ago, I called William Shatner and wrecked his day. At least, one can surmise as much based on how the actor responded to the news that his favored name for one of Pluto’s two new moons hadn’t been selected:

“What? That’s impossible! I’m going to lead a revolt,” Shatner told me.

It was mid-2013, and I’d just revealed that “Vulcan” — Shatner’s proposal — had been rejected by the International Astronomical Union. He was not expecting that.

“Pluto is so big and cold that it deserved to have a hot little rock running around it, named Vulcan — for fire,” he said, once he’d absorbed the decision.

Then he went on: “I’m spraying disappointment the way a Vulcan does.”

“But Vulcans don’t have emotions,” I ventured, wondering if everything I’d ever learned about the Star Trek universe was wrong. Turns out, Shatner was referring to the Roman god of fire, a particularly adept blacksmith capable of conjuring furious fountains of lava.

“The way a volcano does! I’m spraying unhappiness around the way Vulcan does lava!” he said.

I could totally sympathize. Though “Vulcan” had won a pioneering popular vote by a landslide, the IAU killed the name because it didn’t satisfy the union’s naming criteria. In Pluto’s case, those guidelines said new moons needed to be associated with the dwarf planet’s underworldly mythology, and not already describe objects in the solar system. Vulcan, sadly, was only loosely connected to Pluto. It was also the name given to a hypothetical planet inside Mercury’s orbit; and Vulcanoids are a similarly roasty class of sun-grazing asteroid.

Vulcan was out, to Shatner’s dismay.

Opening up the naming of moons to a popular vote isn’t de rigueur among scientists. Normally, a moon’s discoverer gets to name it, pending approval by the IAU. But in early 2013, the SETI Institute’s master moon-finder Mark Showalter and his colleagues decided to take a slightly more democratic approach with Pluto’s newbies, discovered in 2011 and 2012. For too long, the little satellites had been boringly referred to as P4 and P5 because they were the fourth and fifth known moons orbiting the dwarf planet. Snooze.

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P4 and P5 in July 2012. (NASA/ESA/L. Frattare/M. Showalter)

Showalter and his colleagues put together a ballot and populated it with a dozen minions of Hades. Then they invited anyone with an Internet connection to log in and vote – and even suggest names of their own. That’s where Shatner came in. He proposed “Vulcan” on Twitter, and Vulcan’s votes started piling up even though it was one of 30,000 write-in suggestions.

When the polls closed, nearly half a million votes had been cast. Fiery Vulcan led the charge by more than 70,000 votes, followed by three-headed canine Cerberus and Styx, the river of most epic sighs. Showalter submitted Vulcan and Cerberus to the IAU, which promptly DQ’d Vulcan for the reasons mentioned above. So, Showalter sent Styx in Vulcan’s place, and P4 and P5 henceforth became known as Kerberos (the Greek spelling) and Styx.

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Now, after spending almost 10 years hurtling toward Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is finally close enough to see all of the dwarf planet’s known moons for the first time. In addition to super faint Styx and Kerberos, there are Nix, Hydra and Charon, a moon so big it forms a binary planet with Pluto. But there could be more moons hiding in the system, and New Horizons will spend much of the next few months looking for them.

That’s because dust and debris kicked up by those moons could be dangerous for the spacecraft, which will fly within 12,500 kilometers of Pluto in mid-July. Even a piece of space dander the size of a rice pellet could be lethal if it hits New Horizons in a crucial area. (Eep.)

There’s no word yet on how any newly discovered moons will earn their names, and if the process might include another popular vote. But perhaps characteristically, the New Horizons team has already let people weigh in on what to call features discovered on the surfaces of Pluto and its moons. Unlike those of the moons themselves, these names will be linked to exploration — historical, fictional, and mythological. Voting ended April 24, but the ballot included such possibilities as Kirk and Spock, Battlestar Galactica, J.R.R. Tolkien, Clyde Tombaugh, and — yes — Vulcan.

Two years ago, Shatner had said that a surface feature wouldn’t be good enough.

“That sounds like getting the Miss Congeniality award,” he’d grumbled, when I noted that perhaps a super cool ice volcano could bear the name of his first officer’s home world. Has his opinion changed in the intervening years? It’s hard to say, but it seems he’s still annoyed with the IAU.

@b0yle @NathanFillion What you fail to realize is that the corrupt Astronomer’s Union has the final say so it’s not worth it to even bother.

— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) March 21, 2015