Help Name Pluto’s Newly Discovered Moons

Pluto
Pluto is one of the little mysteries of our solar system. An icy dwarf planet far from Earth, it’s never been studied up close. The best scientists have been able to do is to examine it with the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the coolest scientific instruments ever invented.

In 2011 and 2012, they discovered two new moons around Pluto, bringing the total number of its satellites to five. Right now they’re known by the boring scientific designations S/2011 (134340) 1 and S/2012 (134340) 1. Most astronomers call them by the shorter yet equally boring nicknames P4 and P5. Now an online poll on the website Pluto Rocks!, run by Dr. Mark Showalter of the P4/P5 Discovery Team, is letting YOU help decide what to name them.

All the choices come from Greek and Roman mythology but one has a special significance for science fiction fans – Vulcan. None other than William Shatner has gotten behind the push to name one of the moons after Mr. Spock’s home world. He’s urging fans via his twitter feed to vote for Vulcan. On his own twitter feed, Leonard Nimoy said, “‘Vulcan’ is the logical choice. LLAP.” LLAP stands for “Live long and prosper,” of course.

According to the current tally, Vulcan is way ahead, with Cerberus and Styx neck-and-neck for second place. I decided to release my inner Trekkie and voted for Vulcan. Since there are two moons to be named, you get to go back and vote again. I’ll be voting for Thanatos. It’s way behind but it’s the coolest name on there after Vulcan.

P4 is Pluto’s smallest moon, measuring an estimated 8-21 miles across and orbits Pluto in about 31 days. P5 is 6-16 miles across and orbits Pluto in 20 days. Little is known about their physical makeup although it is thought they are a combination of water ice, other frozen elements and molecules, and small bits of rock.

While astronauts and space tourists won’t be getting to these destinations anytime soon, it’s nice to know that you had a part in naming them. Voting ends at noon EST on Monday, February 25.

[Photo courtesy NASA via the Hubble Space Telescope]

Amazing photographic animation of Cassini’s Saturn flyby


The Cassini unmanned probe to Saturn has been a resounding success. A joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, it’s been studying the ringed planet since 2004. Cassini has been sending back detailed images of Saturn, its rings, and its moons and expanding our knowledge of the solar system.

Check out this amazing video made up of hundreds of thousands of Cassini photographs put one after another to recreate the flyby. There’s no CGI, no trick photography, these are all real images that, as the folks over at Tecca point out, are every bit as good as anything Hollywood can create us. This film is actually a preview of an IMAX feature currently under production by the nonprofit Outside In.

Before it got to Saturn, Cassini also flew past Venus, an asteroid, and Jupiter. I’m hoping those images will be in the movie too.

While I’m not going to be putting on my backpack and heading to Saturn anytime soon, images like this get me in the mood to travel. It’s that sense of exploration, learning about the unknown, that drives us to reach into space and see what’s out there. Cassini may be just an unmanned probe, but through the images it sends back we can all travel with it.