Pluto Map Analyzed – Global Surface Features Names

Map of Pluto

Drew in peace: The Pluto map!

Human likes borders: Only if it wants to occupy.

This time it has been a peaceful naming and the only border drew was Pluto’s embracing heart. Luckily we don’t yet intend to invade and embrace other warm hearted planets back!

IAU announced 2 different sets of surface feature names for Pluto on September 2017 and August 2019.

New Horizons Legend and Its Consequences

We can never be thankful enough to the architects of the New Horizons Mission. After 9.5 years of flight and the epic close approach, well-organized devices onboard New Horizons Spacecraft sent awesome footages of Pluto in July 2015 to the bases in Earth. The Earth was so far from New Horizons those times that even sending data packages to Earth was taking more than 4 hours!

With the popular close-by shot, we had an extraordinarily detailed view of this cute planet.

Pluto Image
This is the best Pluto image captured by New Horizons Spacecraft on 14 July 2015. High resolution of this image allows us to see surface details down to 1.3 kilometers long. Source: NASA

In case they have such detailed images of planetary objects, scientists; especially the people who contributed on such prosperous missions enjoy mapping visible surface features. This is not only for legacy, but also for simplifying things. Similar to your geography class.

Naming is Where IAU Steps In

And this is where IAU can declare how thankful we are!

Naming of celestial objects or such features of their surface means, International Astronomical Union (IAU) gets involved. IAU is the institution taking the initiative for this kind of naming tasks for decades.

Well, yes.. This is the same committee who decided to call Pluto a dwarf planet instead of a regular one.

Pluto map
2-D Pluto map without surface names. Source: NASA

When Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, naming her was a big worldwide interest and IAU was not working on naming planets yet. However the astronomical committees still decided to leave the privelege to Lowell Observatory where the discovery took place.

With more often discoveries and increased global networks in 20th century, IAU took the responsibility for naming. What’s more, they even formed a team called International Astronomical Union’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature for such purposes.

New Horizons Team Has a More Extensive Pluto Map!

Naming newly discovered solar system objects always takes time for IAU and the names advised by the discoverers do not always be the official ones.

But when it comes to surface features of a planet which is that far from us, it could never be possible to have that detailed surface images via land based or satellite cameras without such a mission. That’s why, all the surface names were directly served by the New Horizons Mission Team to IAU working group. And this sounds more than fair enough.

Pluto Map
Those are Charon and Pluto maps created and used by New Horizons Team. Photo source here

One thing to mention about above map is: The names on original Pluto Map (and also Charon Map) of New Horizons Team are still used internally. In addition, there are dozens of articles published by different scientists which include the names on this version.

Eventually this means those names are in some way globally granted by scientists.

IAU Announced Names in Two Rounds

We’d like to say all names served by New Horizons Team were granted by IAU. However only few of them were confirmed by an IAU press release on 7 September 2017.

Pluto Map
Initial Pluto map, with the names announced by IAU in 2017. Source: IAU Website

However on 8 August 2019 IAU announced a second set of surface feature names. This new Pluto map includes names both mentioned by New Horizons Team and brand new ones invented.

Names of Terrains on Pluto Map – 2017

Let’s take a closer look to the regions on IAU’s 2017 Pluto Map (white texts) and see what they stand for:

Pluto Map
Latest Pluto map from 8 August 2019, with surface feature names announced by IAU. Source: IAU Website

Tombaugh Regio – Pluto Map

While name “Tombaugh” honors the discoverer of this planet, this complete area is Pluto’s so called ‘broken heart‘. Although it doesn’t look exactly like a heart on converted to 2-d map of Pluto, you can see from below image that it really looks like a big white heart from space.

The white area on this image is the complete Tombaugh Regio itself. Source: NASA

This is the area with widely spread intensive ice bodies made of several materials like nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. Water ice is also one of those materials.

Burney Crater – Pluto Map

This crater name honors Venetia Burney. She was the person to come up with the idea of name Pluto for this planet when she was 11 years old.

This is area is 250 kilometers in width, including bunch of craters and actually does not include a single crater.

Burney Crater
Close up image of Burney Crater area. Source: NASA

Sputnik Planitia – Pluto Map

This zone is named in honor to Sputnik 1, which is the first space satellite ever. This is the wide area within Tombaugh Regio, which consists of plains of ice on the north side.

Tenzing Montes and Hillary Montes – Pluto Map

Those are two mountain ranges on west edges of Sputnik Planitia. While the height of mountains go up to 3.5 kilometers, the names belong to Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary who were the first people to climb Mount Everest and to safely reach back home.

Mountains on Pluto
Mountain ranges on Pluto. Source: NASA

Al-Idrisi Montes – Pluto Map

Up to 2.8kilometers in height, those mountain ranges are adjacent to west border of the Tombaugh Regio. Ash-Sharif-al-Idrisi is a mapmaker and geographer from 12th century.

Djanggawul Fossae – Pluto Map

This region consists of long and narrow canyons. And the name comes from the ancient Australian mythology.

Sleipnir Fossa – Pluto Map

It is a wide area where strange fractures observed and still studied. In addition, the name of that area with vast cracks up to 580 kilometers long comes from an eight-legged horse in Norse mythology.

Sleipnir Fossa
Sleipnir Fossa area with extremely long cracks on surface. Source: NASA

Virgil Fossae – Pluto Map

Located on south-west part of the observable hemisphere, Virgil Fossae is recently popular with Pluto’s cryovolcanism activities. Virgil is a Roman poet lived in 1st Century BC.

Adlivun Cavus – Pluto Map

That is a big canyon, where the contrary name is “underworld” in Inuit mythology.

Hayabusa Terra – Pluto Map

Is the wide spread north-east region and named in honor to Japanese spacecraft collecting first asteroid samples from space.

Tartarus Dorsa – Pluto Map

Is a mountainous field on the east border of broken heart. The name comes from Greek mythology. That name stands for the darkest pit in the underworld.

Tartarus Dorsa
Tartarus Dorsa area, illustrated by artist Roman Tkachenko. Source&Credit: NASA, JHUAPL, SWRI

Voyager Terra – Pluto Map

That area is the long spread northern territory, named for honoring epic Voyager missions.

Elliott Crater – Pluto Map

A 90-kilometer wide crater, named in memory of James Elliott. He is a pioneer on stellar occultation methods about Solar System studies.

Names of Terrains on Pluto Map – 2019

On 8 August 2019, next set of surface feature names were announced by IAU. Let’s see what they are:

Alcyonia Lacus

Scientists believe this area is a frozen lake made of nitrogen. It’s on west of Al-Idrisi Montes. The name is from Greek Mythology, and is used for a lake located in the way to the underworld.

Alcyonia Lacus
Alctonia Lacus area. Source: NASA

Elcano Montes

Mountain ranges close to the south pole. Juan Sebastian Elcano is the first person to complete 1 tour around the world in 16th century.

Hunahpu Valles

This area is just on north of Sputnik Planitia and is a terrain of canyons. The name comes from Mayan mythology.

Kiladze Crater

One of the big craters on Pluto surface, located within north-east side of Sputnik Planitia. Rolan Kilazde is an astronomer worked on early Pluto researches.

Khare Crater

A crater located on west lands. Bishun Khare is an Indian-born researcher worked on astrochemistry. His experimental works revealed many secrets about the tholins on Pluto surface.

Lowell Regio

Is the wide spread area around the north pole. Percival Lowell is an astronomer who built the Lowell Observatory: where Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 after his death.

Lowell Regio
Lowell Regio. Source: Wikipedia

Mwindo Fossae

A zone of cavities on east lands. Mwindo is a hero from Nyanga mythology. 

Piccard Mons

This feature is close to the south pole and the first area of interest regarding cryovolcanism. Auguste Piccard is a physicist from 1900’s.

Pigafetta Montes

Is a mountain range on south-west of Sputnik Planitia. Antonio Pigafetta is the person to journalize Magellan’s trips around the globe in 16th century.

Piri Rupes

This area lays within Burney region and is a wide scarp area. Ahmed Muhiddin Piri is an Ottoman explorer and mapper from 16th century.

Simonelli Crater

Is one of the biggest craters on east lands. Damon Simonelli is an astronomer who contributed a lot about Pluto studies.

Images of biggest Pluto craters. Source: NASA

Vega Terra

Wide area on west side. The name stands for of USSR’s Vega spacecraft.

Venera Terra

Being the neighbor in north of Vega Terra, Venera Terra is another wide surface feature. Venera is the name of consecutive and mostly successful Venus missions of USSR.

Wright Mons

Wright Brothers are the famous inventors of an airplane. This mountain ranges are the biggest ones observed on Pluto surface. They spread accross 150kilometers wide and tops raise up to 4kilometers in height.

Wright Mons
Wright Mons area. Source: NASA

Are All Pluto Surfaces Named?

While the names announced in 2017 did not enclose all “visible” zones, new “official” Pluto map mostly covers all areas and remarkable surface features.

On the other hand, when you check out spherical simulations or 2-d maps of Pluto, you can infer some parts (basically less than half of Pluto surface) are mostly “dark” or “blurred“. So what about those lands? Should we not offend them maybe?

New Horizons devices recorded different images during its flyby and revealed several facts about Pluto. However, technical restrictions did not allow the spacecraft to orbit Pluto. That was only a flyby mission.

The cameras could properly record the only hemisphere which received sunlight during the closest approach. Far side of Pluto surface was also captured hours and days before the closest flyby, but the resulting images are in lower resolution and prevent scientists to clarify the surface view.

Far side of Pluto. Source&Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

However that far side was imaged with a different purpose: The aim here was to locate the spacecraft aligned with Sun and Pluto in order to examine Pluto atmosphere.

Although most of the surface features including the non-encountered hemisphere have (at least) region names, some features can not be identified without more clear images. So until another future Pluto mission scope includes a separate (orbiter) visit, this part in will remain as “Dark Terra” or so!


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