By KER THAN – Space News Correspondent
The International Astronomical Union has officially christened Pluto’s two newest satellites Nix and Hydra.
The tiny satellites were discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in May and are believed to have been formed from the same giant impact that carved out Charon, Pluto’s third satellite, which was discovered in 1978.
The names were proposed this spring by the team that discovered the satellites, known officially as P1 and P2.
In Greek mythology, Nyx was the goddess of the night and the mother of Charon, the boatsman who ferried souls across the River Styx into the underworld ruled by Pluto. The IAU changed the spelling to “Nix” after the Egyptian spelling of the goddess to avoid confusion with two asteroids that already had been named “Nyx.”
The outermost of Pluto’s two new satellites is named after Hydra, the nine-headed mythological serpent that guarded Pluto’s realm.
“We thought it was an appropriately scary image to be the guard at the gate,” said Alan Stern, an astronomer with the Southwest Research Institute who led the team that initially discovered the satellites. In addition to their relation to Pluto, the names were chosen because their first initials, “N” and “H,” are also the first letters of New Horizons, the NASA spacecraft launched in January towards the Pluto system. The Hubble Space Telescope was providing support for the New Horizons mission when it spotted the tiny satellites.
“The ‘P’ and the ‘L’ in Pluto are in honor of the Percival Lowell, who instigated the search that resulted in the discovery of Pluto,” Stern sai . “The ‘N’ and the ‘H’ are exactly parallel to honor New Horizons, which instigated the search that led us to [the new satellites].”
Stern said the team also considered the name “Cerberus,” the three-headed hound who also guarded the gates to Hades, but rejected it because many people associate Pluto with the Disney cartoon character, and having one object in the system named after a dog was enough.
The new names were reported June 20 on ScienceNOW.org, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.