The New Horizons mission to Pluto has been a dream come true for scientists, who've waited years to get their first close-up glimpse of the distant dwarf planet. But some of the informal names they're giving its distinctive features are straight out of nightmares.
Since Pluto is named for the Roman god of the underworld, the names of its features are receiving monikers based on subterranean and suboceanic characters from fiction and mythology.
One of the dark regions near Pluto's south pole, initially called "The Whale" when first spotted from a more distant photo, has now been dubbed Cthulhu, one of the terrible "Great Old Ones" from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu lurks under the sea in the sunken city of R'lyeh.
Other features have been named for Meng-p'o, the Buddhist goddess of forgetfulness and amnesia, and Balrog, a demon from JRR Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series. Two features, Vucub-Came and Hun-Came, are named for Mayan death gods. There's also Krun, named for a Mandaean lord of the underworld, and Ala, the Ibo ruler of the underworld.
Besides being colorful, the names serve a purpose for scientists as well.
“We got tired of calling it the dark spot on the left and the dark spot on the right,” Jeffrey M. Moore, the leader of the mission's geology, geophysics and imaging team, told The New York Times.
The names are considered informal, but may be presented to the International Astronomical Union, which is responsible for naming celestial objects, to become the official designations of the locations. IAU typically gives naming priority to those who have made the discovery.
The names are taken from the winners of an online poll at OurPluto.org. Other high-ranking names that could soon find a home on Pluto or its moon, Charon, include Tartarus (the Greek pit of lost souls), Hades (the Greek name for Pluto) and Anubis (the jackal-headed Egyptian god, one of several associated with death and the underworld), as well as several names related to the works of Tolkien.
While many of the unusual names have captured the collective imagination of earthlings on Internet, it's the decision to honor the tentacled Cthulhu that has lit up social media.