Pluto moon names to be selected by public voting, we talk to astronomer Mark Showalter


P4 and P5 aren't the sorts of names that impart the manner of excitement space exploration companies and organizations are looking to inspire in the next generation of enthusiasts (nor the customers, philanthropists and tax payers destined to fund those explorations). The SETI Institute, a private non-profit, best known for its ties to the eponymous search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe, is looking to add a little bit of audience participation to the act of naming Pluto's newly discovered moons, which sport those rather uninspired alphanumeric designations.

Beginning today, SETI will open up an online contest to name the moons, both of which were discovered via the Hubble Telescope fairly recently. As with the rest of the dwarf planet's moons, the organization's asking that the names be associated with Hades (the underworld), with ties to Greek or Roman mythology. SETI will pre-select candidates and is also allowing for write-in candidates (though it's retaining editorial discretion here, so, for better or worse, we're not likely to see a Baba Booey moon in the near future).

On a recent trip to the Bay Area, we had the opportunity to speak to Mark Showalter, the senior research scientist at the organization's Carl Sagan Center, an astronomer who played a key role in the discovery of the celestial bodies. You can check out that interview just after the break, before heading off to vote. Showalter is also co-hosting a Google+ Hangout with astronomer Hal Weaver today at 2PM ET.

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The discoverers of Pluto's two tiniest moons are inviting the public to help select names for the new moons.

By tradition, the moons of Pluto have names associated with Hades and the underworld. Beginning today, people can vote by visiting:

"The Greeks were great storytellers and they have given us a colorful cast of characters to work with," said Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. He and the teams of astronomers who made the discoveries will select two names based on the outcome of the voting.

Until now, these small moons have been referred to as, simply, "P4" and "P5". Like Pluto's three other moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra, they need to be assigned names derived from Greek or Roman mythology.

Visitors to the web site will also be able to submit write-in suggestions. These will be reviewed by the team and could be added to the ballot. Voting will end Feb. 25, 2013. The final names will be announced after their formal approval by the International Astronomical Union.

P4 was discovered in 2011 in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. P5 was discovered a year later during a more intensive search for previously unseen objects orbiting the distant, dwarf planet. The moons are only 20 to 30 km (15 to 20 miles) across. Currently, Pluto is receiving special scrutiny by astronomers, because NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is slated to arrive there in July 2015.

A Google+ Hangout is scheduled on February 11 at 11 am PT with two of the scientists involved in the discovery. Mark Showalter is from the SETI Institute, and Hal Weaver is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Questions from the viewers will be taken during the event using Twitter (hashtag #PlutoRocks), the SETI Institute Facebook page and the Google hangout.

The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. We believe we are conducting the most profound search in human history – to know our beginnings and our place among the stars.

The SETI Institute (founded in 1984) is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach. The Institute comprises three centers, the Center for SETI Research, the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe and the Center for Education and Public Outreach. Today the Institute employs over 150 scientists, educators and support staff. For more information, see