Did you know that if you discover a celestial orb (planet, asteroid, moon, what have you) you get to name it? Yeah, it's not just a common device in movies and televisions shows. But when SETI Institute scientist Mark Showalter discovered two new moons—temporarily dubbed P4 and P5—circling the demoted-to-dwarf-planet Pluto, he decided to leave their names for the world to decide. So, he took to the internet and created a place where people could weigh in.
Over two weeks in February, people could vote on a selection of names or suggest their own, and ultimately 450,000 votes were cast. However, Showalter knew better than to leave this entirely up to the whims of the internet. So, he made the caveat the final name must somehow tie into Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld. This meant that names like Eurydice, Alecto, and Persephone were okay, but paired names like Stephen and Colbert, Mickey and Minnie, Potato and Pota(h)to were dismissed. But Wired has revealed that things got sticky when William Shatner and the might of Star Trek fans got involved.
When the first Captain Kirk found out about Showalter's poll, he called out to his Twitter following to vote for his suggestion, "Vulcan." The name tied nicely into Pluto's mythology as Vulcan was the Roman god of fire, metal working, and volcanoes. Of course, it also ties beautifully into Star Trek lore, as Vulcan was the home planet of Mr. Spock. With Shatner's boost, the name Vulcan shot to the top of the poll with 170,00 votes, followed by Cerberus—the three-headed hellhound that guards the gates to Pluto's underworld—with 99,432 votes. But there was still one obstacle before the names were official: they had to be approved by the International Astronomical Union. Some recent tweets from Shatner will tell you how that went:
It turns out copyrighting of names isn't something that only afflicts us here on Earth. The International Astronomical Union rejected Vulcan and Cerberus because other celestial bodies already had these names. Showalter made a clever edit, changing the latter's spelling to its Greek variant, Kerberos, and it was approved. But the would-be Vulcan was rechristened Styx, the third-place contender, the name of the goddess of unbreakable oaths, and the river between the realm of the living and that of the dead…and the Chicago-born rock band.
Showalter described the IAU's decision as a disappointment, but says, "I hope the public is going to be pleased with the decisions that were made. I don’t think anybody’s ever tried quite the scale of an Internet poll as we did.” When reached for comment, Shatner said he would lead a revolt for Vulcan, adding:
“Pluto is so big and cold that it deserved to have a hot little rock running around it, named Vulcan — for fire.”
While the IAU's decision on P4 and P5 is final, they haven't closed the door to naming something in the Pluto system Vulcan. In 2015, a spacecraft will give scientists a thorough mapping of craters and mountains on Pluto and its moons. And these topographical features aren't ruled by nearly as aggressive labeling laws. So, Vulcan could rise again. Until then, Vulcan, this one's for you: