From Titan's Doom Mons to Mercury's Pourquoi-Pas: how did the landscape of space get its names?

A detail from Ordnance Survey's new map of Mars. Image: OS.

The Ordnance Survey recently made a very nice map of Mars’ Arabia Terra region. This map shows an alien crater-pocketed landscape, peppered with mysterious names like “Aram Chaos”, “Meridiani Planum” and “Marth”.

When the OS makes a map of Britain, it is making a map of a place with history – reflected in place names that come from the many different languages that people have spoken here. But where are the names on the Mars map coming from?

The romance of naming

Space used to be like the Wild West, with different names used by different people. So, in 1911, the International Astronomical Union started to become the official clearing house for space names.

It legitimised features from previous maps (like Schiaparelli’s map of Mars) and made rules for how new names would be picked. It now publishes its database online, and I used this and various NASA maps of other planets to build We Name The Stars – a way of exploring these rules and places.

The IAU conventions seem to understand that there is something magical and important about naming things. We don’t end up with Crater 62 on asteroid BXM-2: each kind of feature (mountains, ridges, craters, lakes) on each different world has a different naming convention, so that similar places are thematically linked. Often revolving around a particular ancient myth, this lends a sense of grandness and history to what is otherwise just some slightly different coloured pixels.

A screenshot from the "We Name the Stars" page on Mars. Click to expand.

Not all names are mythical. Craters on Mercury are named after historically significant artists, while escarpments are named after ships of discovery. This is how you end up with a slope on Mercury named “Pourquoi-Pas”.

Craters on the asteroid Eros are named after “mythological and legendary names of an erotic nature” (which gives us Casanova and Abelard), while Saturn’s moon Titan has places named after mountains in Middle Earth. The largest mountain on Titan is called Doom Mons.

Places We’ll Never Go

Part of the appeal of the OS map is that it reinforces the idea of Mars as a place. It’s a technical challenge, but ultimately we understand how we’d get there, walk around, and get back.

Similarly you can vaguely imagine the 22nd century equivalent of the Arctic Explorer taking the journey my virtual rover is making across the Moon, visiting every crater. But there are plenty of other places to which we’ve given names that will probably never be walked on by people.

Take Mercury – it’s right next to the sun and spins very slowly. Every place on the planet spends every other month staring into the furnace. In several of his books Kim Stanley Robinson solves this problem with Terminator – a city that travels on rails around the planet. The sun heats the rails, which expand and push the city onward – permanently keeping it just beyond dawn.

But this is a fragile solution. Valleys on Mercury are named after ancient abandoned cities – a poor omen for the success of future settlement. Maybe maps of Mercury are for visitors, driving slowly to stay ahead of the sun.

 

A screenshot from the "We Name the Stars" page on the Moon. Click to expand.

Venus we can’t even visit. In the day the surface can get hot enough to melt lead, and the atmospheric pressure is the equivalent of being a kilometre under the ocean on Earth. On the other hand, it turns out that, if you build floating cities 50km up, the pressure and temperature are pretty much the same as on Earth. To our cloud-dwelling descendants it’ll probably seem odd that we put so many of our goddesses on features as unimportant to them as the floor of the ocean is to us.

There is something strange and wonderful about a system that produces such evocative names for places that in all likelihood no one will ever visit. These names don’t have to be pretty or coherent – but the effort is made anyway.

The European Sky

The IAU was founded at a time when “international cooperation” mostly meant “European cooperation”. The conventions emerging on using old myths and Latinised names were good, because that seemed like common ground.  Astronomers looked into space and then looked back on their shared classical heritage, pillaging the myths of the Romans and Greeks for important sounding but politically neutral names.

Except, of course, it’s not really neutral because not everyone comes from that heritage. Some 60 per cent of feature names are European in origin, and so European myth and history punches a little above its weight in the space naming race.

As the composition of the IAU has changed over time, this shift has been reflected in patterns for future names. Many conventions are now ecumenical: Io is littered with thunder and sun gods from different cultures, and Ceres has features named after the “agricultural festivals of the world”. Rhea uses names from “people and places from creation myths (with Asian emphasis)”; names on Triton are explicitly “aquatic names, excluding Roman and Greek”.


Fragile Monuments

But these are all faraway places, what about European domination of the places we’re actually likely to go – like the Moon and Mars? If the future of space turns out to be non-western, this issue ends up solving itself.

After the Chinese Yutu rover landed on the moon, the landing site was named Guang Han Gong (Moon Palace) and three local craters were given names from Chinese astrology by the IAU. When the asteroid 1998 SF 36 was selected as the target for the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft, it was designated Itokawa after a Japanese rocket scientist. Where robotic feet go, naming rights follow.

On the Moon there are areas where naming is reserved to honour dead astronauts and cosmonauts, with the ominous note that “this convention may be extended if other space-faring countries suffer fatalities in spaceflight”. And why not? There’s plenty of Moon left, thousands of craters have been identified that have yet to receive an official name.

And even if a feature has a name with a history, will people honour it? Will a Martian Chinese colony in the Rutherford Crater still call it Rutherford? Will Indian settlers in Inuvik keep the name of a small town in Canada – or rename it something closer to home?

There’s a long history of name changes in space. British astronomers carried on with George’s Star (chosen by the discoverer of the planet to honour George III) for many years after everyone else switched to “Uranus”. The Galilean moons were once the ‘Medician stars’ – after the family whose patronage Galileo sought. When Cassini discovered the moons of Saturn he called them ‘the stars of Louis’ after King Louis XIV, hoping to create “a Monument much more lasting than those of Brass and Marble”. That we don’t use any of these names reflects the fragility of monuments that only exist on paper.

European myths may end up the Lingua Franca of empty places – only kept for areas to which no one has any interest in going. If in the future there are settlers in Arabia Terra, that OS map might be an interesting historical artefact for them – a perfectly correct map with all the wrong names. 

You can learn more about space names over at We Name The Stars

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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