Several people and missions who paved the way for the historic exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt — the farthest worlds ever explored — are honored in the second set of official Pluto feature names approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the international authority for naming celestial bodies and their surface features.
The new names were proposed by NASA’s New Horizons team, which carried out the first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons with the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. Along with a short list of official names the IAU had already approved, the mission science team had been using these and other place names informally to describe the many regions, mountain ranges, plains, valleys and craters discovered during the first close-up look at Pluto’s surface.
The IAU approved the first set of 14 feature names for Pluto in 2017, as well as a set of names for Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in 2018. The team gathered many of the naming ideas during an online campaign in 2015.
The 14 newest Pluto feature names are listed alphabetically below. The names pay homage to underworld mythology, pioneering space missions that led to the capability to conduct New Horizons, historic pioneers who crossed new horizons in the exploration of Earth, and scientists and engineers associated with the study and exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.
Alcyonia Lacus, a possible frozen nitrogen lake on Pluto’s surface, is named for the bottomless lake in or in the vicinity of Lerna, a region of Greece known for springs and swamps; the Alcyonian lake was one of the entrances to the underworld in Greek mythology.
Elcano Montes is a mountain range honoring Juan Sebastián Elcano (1476 – 1526), the Spanish explorer who in 1522 completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth (a voyage started in 1519 by Magellan).
Hunahpu Valles is a system of canyons named for one of the Hero Twins in Mayan mythology, who defeated the lords of the underworld in a ball game.
Khare crater honors planetary scientist Bishun Khare (1933 – 2013), an expert on the chemistry of planetary atmospheres who did laboratory work leading to several seminal papers on tholins — the organic molecules that probably account for the darkest and reddest regions on Pluto.
Kiladze crater honors Rolan Kiladze (1931 – 2010), the Georgian (Caucasus) astronomer who made pioneering early investigations the dynamics, astrometry and photometry of Pluto.
Lowell Regio is a large region honoring Percival Lowell (1855 – 1916), the American astronomer who founded Lowell Observatory and organized a systematic search for a planet beyond Neptune.
Mwindo Fossae is a network of long, narrow depressions named for the Nyanga (Eastern Dem. Rep. Congo/Zaire) epic hero who traveled to the underworld and after returning home became a wise and powerful king.
Piccard Mons is a mountain and suspected cryovolcano that honors Auguste Piccard (1884 – 1962), a 20th century inventor and physicist best known for his pioneering balloon flights into Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Pigafetta Montes honors Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 – c. 1531), the Italian scholar and explorer who chronicled the discoveries made during the first circumnavigation of the Earth, aboard Magellan’s ships.
Piri Rupes is a long cliff honoring Ahmed Muhiddin Piri (c. 1470 – 1553), also known as Piri Reis, an Ottoman navigator and cartographer known for his world map. He also drew some of the earliest existing maps of North and Central America.
Simonelli crater honors astronomer Damon Simonelli (1959 – 2004), whose wide-ranging research included the formation history of Pluto.
Wright Mons honors the Wright brothers, Orville (1871 – 1948) and Wilbur (1867 – 1912), American aviation pioneers credited with building and flying the world’s first successful airplane.
Vega Terra is a large land mass named for the Soviet Vega 1 and 2 missions, the first spacecraft to fly balloons on another planet (Venus) and to image the nucleus of a comet (1P/Halley).
Venera Terra is named for the Venera missions sent to Venus by the Soviet Union from 1961 to 1984; they included the first human-made device to enter the atmosphere of another planet, to make a soft landing on another planet and to return images from another planetary surface.
The New Horizons spacecraft — built and operated at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, with a payload and science investigation led by Southwest Research Institute — is nearly 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. The spacecraft is in good health and transmitting data recorded from its New Year’s 2019 encounter with the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, the farthest and most primitive object ever explored.