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'Vulcan' Loses After Pluto Poll (as it should)

By July 2, 2013

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The International Astronomical Union has ruled on the names to be given the two newest moons of Pluto: henceforth they are to be known as Kerberos and Styx. In case there's a quiz soon, the natural satellites of the dwarf planet Pluto, going outward, are Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra.

This adds a new chapter of controversy to the story of Pluto. First of all, since its discovery in 1930 Pluto has been dogged by an inferiority complex as its orbit is weird and its size is smaller than several of the moons of the other planets. When Charon was discovered in 1978, many planetologists started to think of Pluto as a double planet. Then in 2006 Pluto was kicked off the list of capital-P planets entirely for being too puny. I agree with all of those perceptions and changes.

What makes Styx and Kerberos controversial, to the extent that they are at all, is not that the one is named for a has-been rock band (it isn't). It's that the names were put up for a public vote along with "Vulcan," which the voters favored. The IAU ruled that "Vulcan" shouldn't even be considered because it has nothing to do with the classical underworld—land of the dead, ruled by Pluto, winter residence of Persephone and all that. I agree with that too.

My question is, why was "Vulcan" even on the list? Not only is Vulcan (and his ancient Greek counterpart Hephaestus) a god of the volcanic underground rather than the underground afterworld, but "Vulcan" was used for many years as the name of a hypothetical planet inside the orbit of Mercury. Astronomers reported sighting it (though sightings were never confirmed) and it was a live topic in the profession for generations; even today "vulcanian" is the term for objects orbiting inside Mercury. So I think that whoever proposed "Vulcan" was deaf to professional norms. That would be the public, voters implored by actor William Shatner to submit the name.

Those voters may also recall that their choices included "Cerberus" rather than "Kerberos." It did, but Cerberus is already the name of an asteroid—a lapse in attention by the pollmakers. So the IAU switched spellings from the Roman to the Greek name of this mythological character, who was the three-headed guard dog at the gates of Hades. Styx, the third-place vote winner, is the name of the river (and its eponymous goddess) that marks the border of Hades. Thank goodness the rock band wasn't involved with that—or was it?

Further reading:
What is a planet from the geological viewpoint?
Moved: Let's call Pluto an outsteroid


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