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


The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.

Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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