It’s only Monday and it’s already been a big week for Trekkies&151following Captain Kirk’s surprise appearance at Sunday’s Academy Awards show, the results of online voting to name two recently discovered satellites of Pluto came in and “Vulcan” was the runaway winner.
Vulcan was the only candidate in the contest run by the SETI Institute to top 100,000 votes, garnering 174,062 votes out of about half a million cast in online voting that ended Monday at 6 a.m. Eastern. “Cerberus” was the other winning name with 99,432 votes, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Pluto, once categorized as a full-blown planet but downgraded several years ago to dwarf planet status, could soon find itself in the odd position of having a moon that’s a planet&151or a fictional one at any rate. In the Star Trek universe, Vulcan is the home world of Mr. Spock and his logic-loving, emotion-suppressing brethren, who are also collectively known as Vulcans (technically, Spock is half-Vulcan, half-human, of course).
The SETI Institute isn’t bound by the voting conducted on its Pluto Rocks website, but said at the outset of the contest on Feb. 10 that it “will take into consideration” the results of the tally in naming the two Plutonian satellites currently designated P4 and P5.
The good news for Star Trek fans&151Mark Showalter of the institute’s P4/P5 Discovery Team said Monday that he was “leaning toward the popular vote,” according to MSN News.
If that’s the case, Pluto will have a moon with a name that some may object is a bit of a stretch by previous Plutonian naming standards. Vulcan, aside from its Star Trek connection, is the name of one of the principle Roman gods and thus meets the criteria of an association with Roman or Greek mythology. But Vulcan, known as Hephaestus in his Greek aspect, is only the nephew of Pluto and lacks as direct a connection to the Roman god of the underworld as the dwarf planet’s other three named moons.
Charon, the first of Pluto’s moons to be discovered when it was identified in 1978, is the ferryman of the Greek and Roman underworld who guides the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron to Pluto’s domain for a price. Nix and Hydra were discovered in 2005 &151the first was named after Charon’s mother and the second after a nine-headed serpentine creature which guarded a gate to Hades in the mythical lake of Lerna.
Vulcan was also the name of a planet or planetoid which astronomers once thought circled the Sun inside the orbit of Mercury, as the Los Angeles Times noted. Space object-namers, it turns out, are extremely reluctant to double up on designations, even for rocks that haven’t been found but one day might be. Cerberus, for example, is already the name of an asteroid, but Showalter said the transliterated Greek spelling “Kerberos” could be used instead.
On the other hand, Vulcan is Pluto’s nephew. And as far as the dozen or so major players making up the Roman and Greek pantheons are concerned, the volcano-dwelling, disfigured smith of the gods has more in common with his uncle than most, associated as Vulcan is with fiery underground caverns and the misunderstood monsters which dwell therein. He’s also got a wife who can’t stand him, Venus (Aphrodite in Greek), just as Pluto’s wife Proserpina (Persephone) is not her husband’s biggest fan.
William Shatner, who appeared in his later-stage Kirk trappings for an opening bit in the Academy Awards show, is credited with kicking off the push to name Pluto’s moon Vulcan. On Feb. 12, Shatner, who has more than 1.3 million Twitter followers, tweeted the idea of naming Pluto’s two unnamed moons “Vulcan” and “Romulus,” the latter another fictional planet of pointy-eared beings in Star Trek.
Both suggestions adhered to the mythology guideline, but Shatner’s second candidate didn’t make the final cut.
“Mr. Shatner’s second suggestion, Romulus, has a bit of a problem because it is already the name of a moon. Romulus, along with his brother Remus, are the names of the moons of the asteroid 87 Silvia. They were discovered by a team led by my good colleague Franck Marchis, now a senior scientist at the SETI Institute,” Showalter wrote on the Pluto Rocks blog.
And despite what all the Trekkies voting for Vulcan might believe, Showalter made it clear that Vulcan had been added to the proposed names for its mythological connection only.
“Any connection to the Star Trek TV series is purely coincidental, although we can be sure that [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry read the classics,” the astronomer wrote.
Here’s the full list of 21 candidates on the Pluto Rocks site: Acheron, Alecto, Cerberus, Erebus, Eurydice, Elysium, Hecate, Hercules-Heracles, Hypnos, Lethe, Melinoe, Obol, Orpheus, Orthrus, Persephone, Sisyphus, Styx, Tantalus, Tartarus, Thanatos, and Vulcan.