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


A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“ of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.


Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.

Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

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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