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?
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)
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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