Help Name Pluto’s Newly Discovered Moons

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]

Happy Birthday, Hubble Space Telescope!

The Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit for 22 years today, and to celebrate, NASA has released this awesome image of the Tarantula Nebula, also known by its less romantic scientific name of 30 Doradus.

A nebula is a massive cloud of gas and dust in which some areas are coalescing and igniting into stars. The Tarantula Nebula is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy orbiting our own Milky Way galaxy. The light comes from thousands of stars in its center that illuminate the clouds and filaments around them.

In addition to being one of the most groundbreaking scientific instruments of the late twentieth century, Hubble is a team player. This image is a composite from the Hubble and two other space telescopes: Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared instrument my super-cool astronomer wife uses. NASA says:

“The Hubble data in the composite image, colored green, reveals the light from these massive stars along with different stages of star birth, including embryonic stars a few thousand years old still wrapped in cocoons of dark gas. Infrared emission data from Spitzer, seen in red, shows cooler gas and dust that have giant bubbles carved into them. These bubbles are sculpted by the same searing radiation and strong winds that comes from the massive stars at the center of 30 Doradus.”

Happy Birthday, Hubble!

Photo courtesy NASA. To see the image in its full 3000-pixel glory, click here.