Written by Beth Askham

A gold spaceship above Pluto.

Image: Artist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passes Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in July 2015.

Credit: NASA

The New Horizons spacecraft has begun sending back images of the much loved dwarf planet. As it gets closer, we will see features on Pluto’s surface for the first time. Craters, canyons, mountains will appear in New Horizons’ images. But what shall we call them?

A crowd-sourced naming campaign held by NASA and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) let you vote on a long list of possible names.

Space archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman from Flinders University says, “It’s a wonderful way to get people involved in space exploration.” She believes that “it’s kind of opening it up and making the solar system more democratic.”

Pluto of the underworld

As Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld, so the themes for its names are exploration and the underworld.

Alice says there are some good options to choose from including a Yolngu word, Baralku. “It’s the name of the island of the dead in Yolngu culture, which is in northern Australia in Arnhem Land” she says.

“I’m impressed with the more than 40 000 thoughtful submissions,” said Mark Showalter from the SETI Institute, which is hosting the naming website, “Every day brings new lessons in the world’s history, literature and mythology. Participation has come from nearly every country on Earth, so this really is a worldwide campaign.”

On 14 July, New Horizons will pass Pluto at a speed of around 50 000 kilometres per hour. It will take thousands of images and then beam them back to Earth. At a distance of around 6 billion kilometres from Earth, it will take approximately 4.5 hours for data to get back home.

More information

Want to learn more about Pluto?
Find out more about New Horizons spacecraft from NASA

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