This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
The New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto in 2015, successfully completed a flyby of “Ultima Thule,” an object in the Kuiper belt of bodies beyond Neptune on January 1, 2019. The name Ultima Thule, signifying a distant unknown place, is fitting but it is currently just a nickname pending formal naming. The official names of the body and of the features on its surface will eventually be allocated (this could take years) by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which celebrates its centenary in 2019.
The IAU’s achievements during its first few decades include resolving contradictory sets of names given to features on the Moon and Mars by rival astronomers during the previous few centuries. The nomenclature working group’s task would then have been largely over, had the space age not dawned – allowing space probes to send back images revealing spectacular landscape details on planets and their moons.
Planetary scientists would find life difficult without names for at least the largest or most prominent features on a body. If there were no names, the only ways to be sure that other investigators could locate the same feature would be by numbering them or specifying map coordinates. Either option would be cumbersome and unmemorable.
Building on some of the already entrenched lunar and martian names, the IAU imposed order by establishing themes for the names of features on each body. For example, large craters on Mars are named after deceased scientists and writers associated with Mars (there’s an Asimov and a Da Vinci), and craters less than 60km across are named after towns and villages on Earth (there’s a Bordeaux and a Cadiz).