The New Horizon's spacecraft, which flew past Pluto in 2015, will fly by "Ultima Thule", the object of the Kuiper belt of bodies beyond Neptune on January 1, 2019. The name Ultima Thule, which denotes a far unknown place, is mounting, but it is currently just a nickname pending formal naming. The official names of the body and its surface properties will eventually be awarded (this may take years) by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which celebrates its century in 2019.
The IAU's achievements over the first few decades are resolving conflicting sets of names given to the Moon and Mars functions by rival astronomers over the past centuries. The working group's task would be so much over if the space age did not arise – allowing space probes to send images that reveal spectacular landscape details on planets and their moons.
Planetary scientists would find life difficult without names for at least the greatest or most prominent features of a body. If there were no names, the only ways to be sure that other investigators could find the same function would be to number them or enter card coordinates. Any opportunity would be cumbersome and immense.
Building on some of the already anchored moon and martian names, the IAU introduced the order by creating themes for names of functions on each body. For example, large craters on Mars are named after deceased scientists and writers associated with Mars (there is an Asimov and a Da Vinci), and craters less than 60 km across are named for cities and villages on Earth (there is a Bordeaux and a Cadiz).
Apart from craters, most names are in two parts, with a descriptor term of Latin origin added to indicate type of the function that has been named. On Mars we find neighboring states called Ares Vallis, Tiu Vallis and Simud Vallis, where the description term "Vallis" is Latin for the valley. This is ahead of the word "Mars" in another language – in these examples Greek, Old English / Germanic and Sumerian. Among other descriptive terms is Chasma (a deep, elongated depression), Mons (mountain), Planitia (a low lying plain) and Planum (a high plain or plateau).
Description conditions are chosen to avoid implying that we know how a particular function is formed. For example, many scarps on mercury are currently interpreted as misprints (where a region of a planet's surface has been pushed over another). But a neutral descriptor term – in this case Rupes (Latin for scarp) – used so they don't have to rename if we had to realize we had interpreted them. Similarly, none of the giant mountains on Mars, which almost certainly have volcanoes, is the volcano as a formal part of its name.
The largest volcano on Mars, Olympus Mons, coincides with an ephemeral bright spot that can sometimes be distinguished through telescopes. Although originally called Nix Olympica (meaning "Snows of Olympus") from the 19th century observer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, space probes have since shown that the temporary brightness is not snow, but clouds that sometimes gather around the summit. The IAU decided to keep Olympus part of the name qualified by the more appropriate descriptor Mons (mountain in Latin).
On the moon, the IAU maintained Hoppe (Latin for the sea) as a descriptive expression of dark spots, although it is clear that they have never been water-filled, as it had ever been thought. But Michael van Langrens Mare Langrenianum, whom he relentlessly named after himself on his 1655 card, is now Mare Fecunditatis.
The IAU is rightly sensitive to achieving cultural and balance. Names of lunar craters acquired by the IAU are reminiscent of famous former scientists who, for historical reasons, are dominant men and westerns. In partial compensation, the IAU decided that all functions on Venus whose surface was largely unknown due to its global cloud cover until we orbit radar spacecraft would be named after females (deceased or mythical). For example, there is a Nightingale Corona, a great oval shaped feature named after Florence Nightingale. The only non-female exceptions are three features already named after being detected by terrestrial radar.
Prior to the first detailed pictures of Jupiter's moons at Voyager-1 in 1979, the IAU planned to use names from people's myths in the Earth's equatorial zone for the Moon Io. It would use mythical names from the European temperate zone to Europe, names from near Eastern mythology to Ganymede, and names from far northern cultures to Callisto.
They are stuck to the latter three, and then Europe Annwn Regio (a region named after the Welsh "Other World"), and Ganymede and Callisto have craters called Anubis (Egyptian Jakalian God) and Valhalla (Norwegian War Party's Venue).
But because Io was revealed to be through persistent volcanic eruptions, the original naming theme was considered inappropriate and was replaced by the names of fire, sun, thunder / lightning and volcanoes from all over the world cultures. For example, names Ah Peku, Camaxtli, Emakong, Maui, Shamshu, Tawhaki and Tien Mu (appearing on the map above) come from fire, thunder or sun myths from the Mayans, Aztecs, New Britain, Hawaii, Arabia, Maori and China, respectively.
Captain Cook and Maoris
The IAU has struggled to achieve cultural balance for some functions. For example, the theme of Rupes on Mercury is "a ship of discovery or scientific expeditions". Of the history of world history, there is a consideration of Western ship names. For example, we find Adventure, Discovery, Endeavor and Resolution – all four ships from Captain Cook's 18th century travels to the Southern Ocean and Pacific.
Mysterious red spots on Mercury get names – but what are they?
Personally, I am satisfied that these were primarily travel to scientific discovery rather than conquest or colonization. Cook's first trip was conducted to observe a rare transit of Venus, and his second journey reached south than ever before.
That said, it would be nice to restore balance. In connection with a European planning project, one of my PhD students and I hope to get at least one of Mercury's yet-named Rupes named for a canoe where the Maori arrived in New Zealand.
Ultimately, space research is for all of humanity.