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Sci-Tech

Cthulhu, Skywalker, Vulcans finally on the map...of Pluto and Charon

The first draft of maps naming spots on Pluto and Charon are out, and they'll make you want to be a space cartographer.

Pluto's heart has a name. NASA / JHU-APL / SwRI

In the days before we had easily accessible maps of everything from our own body to the world undersea on our phones, in our cars and even on our wrists, being one of the limited number of places chosen to be "on the map" -- as in an actual folding paper one -- was a sign of a place's importance. Once you were on the map, you were often on it for good, even if your town burned down and disappeared decades ago. Today, for example, Kokrines is an empty spot on the side of the Yukon River, but one that still gets a named black dot on many maps.

This makes it all the more insulting to poor Pluto that it is no longer on most maps of our solar system after being demoted in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union. Could an entire world really be worthy of less recognition than an empty stretch of remote riverbank?

But in a way, Pluto is now having its revenge. While some representations of our solar system may still refuse to depict it, there are new, emerging maps where Pluto is front and center... because they are the first detailed maps of Pluto itself with named features courtesy of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.

This early map of Pluto, which you can see below and click to enlarge (or download here), has been worth the wait of more than eight decades since the dwarf planet was first spotted hanging out beyond Neptune. You will notice that prominently featured in the center of this distant but fascinating world is the Tombaugh Regio, the large, heart-shaped feature that New Horizons first spied from a distance. The region includes the flat, frozen lands of the Sputnik Planum flanked by the 11,000-foot peaks of the Norgay Montes range, named for Earth's first man-made satellite and one of the first men to summit Mount Everest, respectively.

NASA

Other famous astronomers like Percival Lowell, and explorers -- both fleshy and robotic -- like Francis Drake and Voyager also get nods on the new, informal (for now) map of Pluto that is the result in part of a crowdsourced effort. But there's also some recognition of the inspiration that fictional characters have played in our species' quest to keep exploring, like the darker Cthulhu Regio bordering the Tombaugh.

On the below map of Pluto's largest moon, Charon, the geek factor really begins to go off the chart of any real place we've ever seen, with a dark spot named for the Mordor of "Lord of Rings" fame, craters named for Spock, Skywalker, Kirk and Vader, not to mention the deep chasm named for the Tardis from "Doctor Who."

The maps are of course preliminary and don't have the official stamp of the IAU, but no organization has a monopoly on map-making either. Just as some will never stop calling Pluto a planet and as an empty spot on a northern river in Alaska stays on the map, I never plan to stop calling the dark pole of Charon the Mordor Macula.