Cinzia Bongino's profile
The Names on the Moon

The Names on the Moon is a stroll on the lunar surface through its feature names.

We always see the Moon portrayed as a muted grey sphere orbiting planet Earth, marked by dark spots visible to the naked eye. We can zoom into its surface through photographic and satellite images, exploring the most famous landing sites such as the Sea of Tranquility (where humans first landed on the Moon with the Apollo 11 spacecraft). But how many other places on the Moon do you know?

When I stumbled upon a close-up image of an area with marked sites, I was immediately fascinated by the various names popping out from craters and mountain ranges: several of these physical characteristics had some connections with the topography of Earth. Naming things is a part of general human communication using words and language: the names of streets, cities, and countries are intertwined with the historical development of societies and cultures. But what’s the procedure for naming satellites, stars, and planets?

1:1 Million-Scale Lunar Map (LAC 22). Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature / Image credit: NASA/GSFC/ASU

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) is the organisation in charge of naming celestial bodies. Founded in 1919 in Brussels, since 1935 has been officially assigning names to The Moon surface features, with new entries or revisions listed every year. Examples of lunar features are: Mountains, Valleys, Craters, and Marias—wide flat areas that look like seas from a distance but are probably solidified molten rock. On its website we can find various datasets listing the nomenclatures of planets, asteroids, rings, and satellites of our Solar System.

I grouped the data about lunar features based on the assigned names, with additional information on the profession, lifespan, origin, and source of the nomenclature.

There are 9,050 identified features on the Moon:
 78% are named as Satellite features, meaning that shares the name of an associated feature like Craters, Marias, etc. 
 17.5% are classified as Craters (a circular depression on the surface), followed by 1.2% of features identified as Rimae (Fissure)
 3 features are unique: there is only one Albedo (a geographic area distinguished by amount of reflected light), one Oceanus (a very large dark area), and only one Palus (swamp)

Nomenclature system

In almost 90 years of work, the IAU has chosen 1,852 unique names to identify lunar features. Each features is identified with a conceptual and physical description:
 Name description
 Name source reference
 Name ethnicity
 Feature type
 Lat/Long coordinates
 Year of approval

Each name can be associated with letters to mark related features: e.g. Crater Aliacensis has 13 associated features identified as Aliacensis A, Alicensis B, etc.

Feature names can be organised in:
 Proper nouns, like “Soraya”, a Persian female name
 People, such as notable scientists, astronomers, historians,...
 Places, like “Montes Carpatus”, named after the Carpathian mountains
 ​​​​​​​Astronaut-named features, like “Victory”, which is located on the Apollo 17 site.

Interactive Alluvial diagram made with Flourish

Here are the top 10 ethnicities on the Moon:
 17.8% American
 13.8% Germany
 11.9% United Kingdom
 9.6% France
 5.7% Soviet
 5.2% Italy
 4.9% Greek
 3.8% Russia
 3.8% Latin
 ​​​​​​​2.5% The Netherlands

The radial bar chart displays 1,852 unique lunar feature names by ethnicity (ethnic/cultural group or country).  
The label "American" collects names registered in the original dataset as “American", "United States”, while United Kingdom stands for “British", "England", "Scottish", "Great Britain".

Interactive Circle Packing made with Flourish

When analysing the data related to People names (82%), we notice how the larger majority of persons were Astronomers (33.6%), Physicists (14%), or Mathematicians (12.4%). 
 These notable persons were often active in more than one field of work: e.g. Astronomer and Mathematicians (3.1%), or Astronomer, Mathematician, Philosophers (0.1%)
 The People lived between the year 700 B.C. (e.g. Greek poet Hesiod) and nowadays. Some are still alive in 2022 (e.g. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, Soviet astronaut).
 96 People were awarded a Nobel

Proportional Area chart made with RAWGraphs

The procedure applied to name lunar features looks more structured and inclusive if compared to individual or collective decisions taken by mayors or province administrators. Also the Task Group for Lunar Nomenclature is composed of members with different nationaliies. 

The International Astronomical Union rules that:
 Names should be expressed in the language of origin.
 Where appropriate, using an equitable selection of names from ethnic groups, countries, and gender on each map;
 A higher % of names from the country planning a landing is allowed on landing site maps.
 No names having political, military or religious significance may be used, except for names of political figures prior to the 19th century.
 For commemoration on planetary bodies, persons must have been deceased for at least three years before a proposal may be submitted.

Linear dendrogram made with RAWGraphs

Nomenclature sources

Prior to the formation of IAU in 1919, the names of satellites have had varying histories. The choice of names is often determined by a satellite's discoverer. The IAU website lists the source publications used to assign planetary names. The larger part refers to printed books but there are also linked to a few websites.
 77 unique sources have been consulted for assigning names to lunar features
 Most of the lunar names related to people (25%) have been assigned from a publication published in 1935: Named Lunar Formations, by Mary A. Blagg and K. Muller.
 One-third of the names doesn’t have a specific source: those related to places (e.g. “Lake of Perseverance”), proper nouns (“Ivan”, “Leonida”, “Kira”), or other historical figures not listed in the publications.

Named Lunar Formations by Mary A. Blagg and K. Muller, 1935

Full research here:

The Names on the Moon is a project developed during the data journalism training program organized by Dataninja and the European Data Journalism Network.
(October 2022-February 2023). Data gathered on October 29, 2022.

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The Names on the Moon


The Names on the Moon

The project portrays the Moon through its nomenclature system.