Pluto reminds me a lot of that kid in high school who never even tried to fit in. They were always on the outside of the social circles, and I would speculate if they were cool and mysterious or just awkward losers. Similarly, Pluto has carried an enigmatic reputation since its discovery in 85 years ago: It swings around the outside of the Solar System at an angle – tiny and distant, interacting only with its one companion Charon. We’ve never even gotten a good look at Pluto – the most detailed images we have, such as those above, are impressionistic blurs – and scientists are still debating its actual size.
This lack of knowledge didn’t stop Pluto from becoming a symbol in the public rancor following its exclusion from the group of planets by the International Astronomical Union (Fun fact: Neil deGrasse Tyson, this blog’s hero, ignited this debate when he removed Pluto from the planets in New York City’s Museum of Natural History in 2000). And though I agree with Pluto’s classification as a dwarf planet (an unfortunate name), I think that Pluto has been unfairly loved, hated or ignored based not on its own merits.
This is why I have been so excited about the New Horizons satellite since I learned about it 4 years ago. When it passes by Pluto and its moon Charon in July after 9 years of travel, Earth will finally get a clear glance at this solar system outsider. We will see the surfaces of Pluto and Charon, and be able to identify specific features. And in traditional human style, we’ll be able to name everything.
The team behind New Horizons has asked for the help of the world for names for Pluto and Charon’s peaks, valleys and in-betweens. They’ve launched a campaign called “Our Pluto” to solicit public suggestions based on themes like travelers, underworlds and historic explorers. People can nominate and vote on names, and the New Horizons team will submit the winning names to the IAU for use in July to begin naming.
“Pluto belongs to everyone,” said New Horizon science team member Mark Showalter in a press release from the SETI Institute. “So we want everyone to be involved in making the map of this distant world.”
Help end Pluto’s mystery. Voting ends April 7.