5 space objects with odd names you may not have known

20 Jul 2015

There are lot of things flying around in space: planets, asteroids, stars, clouds of gas, moons… We need names for all of them, which means sometimes it gets a little weird.

As more images pour down from Pluto following New Horizons’ epic nine-year recon mission, we have been treated to a new plain called Sputnik, named after the Russian satellite. That got us thinking, what other weird names are there for things in space?

1. Conamara Chaos

Unlike boring old Earth, with its boring single moon, Jupiter is awash with rock friends. Adorning one if its moons, Europa, is a jagged, rugged, icy landscape called Conamara Chaos.

The rugged landscape, it seems, is what gave it its name — all Chaos areas on Europa are named along Celtic myth lines.

It’s assumed that Europa is mostly rock, however scientists are adamant that water exists there, pooled in underground lakes or layers of slush, with vast quantities more lurking even deeper still in the form of a giant subsurface ocean, right beside Conamara Chaos.

Conamara Chaos - naming space objects

ESA’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (Juice) mission arrives in the Jovian system in 2030. Alongside detailed studies of Jupiter itself, Juice will explore and characterise three of the gas giant’s potentially habitable icy moons: Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. The mission is in development, on track for launch in 2022.

2. The Columbia Hills

Martian exploration has become increasingly detailed since a bunch of rovers were sent up there over the past couple of decades.

As such, more and more areas need to be named. To do this, NASA scientists provisionally name objects and landscapes by theme, to allow for easier discussions than, say, ‘Mountain 4vbt67’ is 6km from ‘Valley 9462hgy9’.

Some themes are humorous, like Vikings perhaps, and others are very, very poignant.

It’s the latter in this instance, as Columbia Hills, a series of seven rises that Curiosity discovered, were named after the seven astronauts that died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster back in 2003. The accident happened one year before the hills were found.

Columbia Hills - naming space objects
Arranged alphabetically from left to right, ‘Anderson Hill’, ‘Brown Hill’, ‘Chawla Hill’, ‘Clark Hill’, ‘Husband Hill’, ‘McCool Hill’ and ‘Ramon Hill’ are portrayed in this amazing picture.

3. Tomhanks and Megryan

A little weirder now as we find two oddly, relatedly, yet separately named asteroids that coincidentally flew quite close together back in 2011.

The two asteroids were discovered years apart, from completely different sides of Earth, before both reaching their closest points to our planet just a fortnight apart.

Asteroids Tomhanks and Megryan - naming space objects

Cue newspaper headlines like ‘You’ve Got Asteroid’, and ‘Sleepless in Space’, in celebration of their You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle blockbuster movies together.

4. Sombrero Galaxy

Sitting on the Virgo constellation, a mere 28m light years from Earth, the Sombrero Galaxy is the most impressive advertisement for headwear around.

It also played a major role in scientists working out that our galaxy is continuously expanding. You can click on the below image to view it in a larger format.

Sombrero galaxy - naming space objects

Originally thought of as a gas surrounding of a star, astronomer V.M. Slipher spotted that it was moving away from us at 700 metres per second.

“This enormous velocity offered some of the earliest clues that the Sombrero was really another galaxy, and that the universe was expanding in all directions,” according to NASA.

5. Gordonia

305 Gordonia is an asteroid whizzing around space somewhere in between Earth and Jupiter. In my unbiased opinion the greatest named rock in history.

Unfortunately, rather than being named after me, before me, in a deity-themed script about my arrival on this planet, the 49km-wide asteroid was dedicated to someone far more important in the world’s eyes.

Discovered by Auguste Charlois, it was named after James Gordon Bennett Jnr, his patron. That Gordon was a publisher for the New York Herald and may be the man from which the ‘Gordon Bennett!’ phrase originates. Here it is on a map.

Gordonia orbit map - naming space objects

Main image and asteroid image via Shutterstock, Sombrero via Hubble/JPL, Columbia via NASA/JPL/Cornell, Conamara via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona and Gordonia via Wikimedia Commons

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic