You pick the names for 5 craters on Mercury

This image mosaic shows the Goethe basin, located in Mercury's northern region. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German poet and dramatist. Learn more here. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Brown University/Flickr)

The team behind NASA’s Messenger mission is looking for your help: they need names for five newly discovered craters on Mercury.

If you’re a citizen of the Earth, you’re eligible to enter the contest. The entry deadline is January 15.

Messenger, built and operated for NASA by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, launched in 2004 and—nearly seven years later—became the first human spacecraft to enter orbit around Mercury. Its original one-year science mission to investigate the planet has been extended twice.

Messenger is expected to drop out of orbit and crash into Mercury in spring 2015.

“This brave little craft, not much bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle, has travelled more than 8 billion miles since 2004—getting to the planet and then in orbit,” says Julie Edmonds, mission education and public outreach manager at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and organizer of the competition.

“We would like to draw international attention to the achievements of the mission and the guiding engineers and scientists on Earth who have made the Messenger mission so outstandingly successful,” she says.

"Dickens" crater on Mercury
(Credit: The Mercury crater at the center of this image is named Dickens, after Charles Dickens, the 19th century British author of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol. (Credit: NASA/JHU APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Choose a creative name

According to the International Astronomical Union, arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since its inception in 1919, all new craters must be named after an artist, composer, or writer famous for more than 50 years and dead for more than three years. See the current list of named Mercury craters here.


Edmonds says participants should first research the individual they are considering before filling out the contest entry. “Once online, registrants will be asked to submit a short description of the individual’s contributions to the arts, music, or literature, as well as an authoritative source for background information,” she says.

The name should not have political, religious, or military significance. It is also essential that there be no other features in the solar system with the same name, Edmonds says. For example, photographer Ansel Adams is not eligible because there is a feature on the moon with the name Adams (even though it was not named for Ansel).

Participants can check their ideas against the list of named solar system features and enter the name in the “Search by Feature Name” box in the upper-right corner.

Messenger team representatives and other experts will review all entries. A short list of 15 names (three per crater) will then go to the IAU, which will make the final selection.

Winning submissions will be announced by the IAU to coincide with the end of Messenger mission operations in late March or April 2015.

Naming Messenger’s discoveries

“We now have a detailed, high-resolution map of the entire planet,” Edmonds says. “As scientists study the incredible data returned by Messenger, it becomes important to give names to surface features that are of special scientific interest.”

Names for landforms such as mountains, craters, and cliffs make it easier for scientists and others to discuss what they have learned, Edmonds says. On Earth, for example, it’s easier to refer to “Mount Everest” than “the 8,484-meter peak located at 27º 59′ 17″ N, 86º 55′ 31″ E.”

The Messenger team, under principal investigator Sean C. Solomon of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, set out to take 2,500 images of the planet. But the overachieving spacecraft has returned more than 250,000.

Messenger has rewritten scientists’ ideas about Mercury and contributed to a deeper understanding of the history and formation of planet and the solar system.

For instance, geochemical measurements revealed a surface poor in iron but rich in moderately volatile elements such as sulfur and sodium. That ruled out longstanding theories that sought to explain Mercury’s high density compared with the other inner planets.

The probe has also helped show that Mercury’s surface was shaped by volcanic activity. It confirmed the presence of large amounts of water ice in permanently shadowed craters near the planet’s poles.

Source: Johns Hopkins University