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


Podcast: Uber & out

Uber no more. Image: Getty.

Oh, capitalism. You had a good run. But then Transport for London decided to ask Uber to take some responsibility for the safety of its passengers, and thus did what 75 years of Soviet Communism failed to do and overthrew the entire economic system of the Western world. Thanks, Sadiq, thanks a lot.

In the unlikely event you've missed the news, the story so far: TfL has ruled that Uber is not a fit and proper company to operate cabs, and revoked its licence. Uber has three weeks to appeal before its cabs need to get off the road.

To commemorate this sad day, I've dragged Stephen Bush back into the podcasting basement, so we can don black arm bands and debate what all this means – for London, for Uber, for the future (if it has one) of capitalism.

May god have mercy on our souls.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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