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National and world

February 25, 2013

Capt. Kirk’s Vulcan entry wins Pluto moons contest

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — “Star Trek” fans, rejoice.

An online vote to name Pluto’s two newest, itty-bitty moons is over. And No. 1 is Vulcan, a name suggested by actor William Shatner, who played Capt. Kirk in the original “Star Trek” TV series.

Vulcan snared nearly 200,000 votes among the more than 450,000 cast during the two-week contest, which ended Monday. In second place with nearly 100,000 votes was Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of the underworld.

Vulcan was the Roman god of lava and smoke, and the nephew of Pluto. Vulcan was also the home planet of the pointy-eared humanoids in the “Star Trek” shows. Think Mr. Spock.

“174,062 votes and Vulcan came out on top of the voting for the naming of Pluto’s moons. Thank you to all who voted!” Shatner said in a tweet once the tally was complete.

Don’t assume Vulcan and Cerberus are shoo-ins, though, for the two tiny moons discovered over the past two years with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The contest was conducted by SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., the research base for the primary moon hunter. The 10 astronomers who made the discoveries will take the voting results into account, as they come up with what they consider to be the two best names.  

The International Astronomical Union has the final say, and it could be another month or two before an edict is forthcoming. Now known as P4 and P5, the moons are 15 to 20 miles across.

The leader of the teams that discovered the mini-moons, Mark Showalter said Monday he is leaning toward the popular vote.  

But Showalter pointed out that asteroids thought to orbit close to the sun are called vulcanoids, and there could be some confusion if a moon of Pluto were to be named Vulcan. Vulcan, in fact, was the name given in the 19th century to a possible planet believed to orbit even closer to the sun than Mercury; no such planet ever was found.

What’s more, Showalter said in a phone interview, Vulcan is associated with lava and volcanoes, while distant Pluto is anything but hot.

As for Cerberus, an asteroid already bears that name, so maybe the Greek version, Kerberos, would suffice, said Showalter, a senior research scientist at SETI’s Carl Sagan Center.

Styx landed in No. 3 position with nearly 88,000 votes. That’s the river to the underworld.

Pluto’s three bigger moons are Charon, Nix and Hydra.

To be considered, the potential names for the two mini-moons also had to come from Greek or Roman mythology, and deal with the underworld. Twenty-one choices were available at the website http://www.plutorocks.com when voting ended Monday. Of those, nine were write-in candidates suggested by the public, including Shatner’s entry for Vulcan.

Shatner’s second choice for a name, Romulus, did not make the cut. That’s because an asteroid already has a moon by that name — along with a moon named Remus.

And forget the Disney connection.

“We love Mickey, Minnie and Goofy, too,” Showalter informed voters a few days into the voting. “However, these are not valid names for astronomical objects. Sorry.”

Altogether, 30,000 write-in candidate names poured in.

Showalter said he will keep the list handy as more moons undoubtedly pop up around Pluto once NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft arrives in 2015. It will be the first robotic flyby ever of the planetoid, or dwarf planet near the outer fringes of the solar system.

“I have learned not to underestimate Pluto,” Showalter wrote on the website. With so many good names available, “Pluto needs more moons!”

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