On calling large moons satellite planets

Friday, June 04, 2010

A post here from about two weeks back is on a matter I consider to be of crucial importance in space exploration: names and titles. Like it or not, people are strongly influenced by labels and what an object is called can make the difference between public funding and public interest, and none.

That post suggests that moons of a certain size (those with hydrostatic equilibrium, thus a spherical shape) should be called satellite planets instead of moons. In this case our own Moon would become a satellite planet as well. Titan would be a satellite planet of Saturn, Jupiter would have several satellite planets (Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, etc.) and so on.

It's a good idea. And to complement this here are a few examples where a name makes a big difference:

Ceres - began as a planet, then turned into an asteroid and ignored. Recently retitled as a dwarf planet, you can now see it on charts of the Solar System where it was invisible before.

Brown dwarfs - is a brown dwarf a type of star, or is it a sub-stellar object? Technically it's the latter, but anyone interested in seeing a mission to one of these (if WISE discovers one nearby) had better call them brown dwarf stars, as then one in our vicinity then becomes the nearest star to us besides our own. Call it a sub-stellar object, and it's....well, it's some sort of object that is very precisely defined but so precise it fails to stir up any excitement among those that hear about it.

Haumea, Makemake. I wonder if these have been named well. They are trans-Neptunian objects of a size similar to Pluto, but still largely unknown. With all due respect to other pantheons, wouldn't a name like Odin or Thor have stirred up greater interest in these previously unknown objects?

On a related note, here's a post of mine from last year on why surface area should be given for each object along with just diameter, since only surface area (along with a country of a similar size for comparison) is the only real way we are able to visualize standing on the surface of an object. 950 km diameter for Ceres sounds like...well, like 950 km in diameter, just a number. Now change that to "the same surface area as Western Europe, or Alaska plus Texas plus California, or Kazakhstan, or Argentina" and now we know how much surface there is to explore; now we have a feel for this place that until now was just a number floating in space.

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