How do we name our Solar System?

Image from an IAS Article Celebrating the Winner of an IAU Prize

We all remember learning the mnemonic device in elementary school: My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Noodles (or whatever variation you prefer). Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, the eight planets of our solar system. But what do these names actually mean? How do planets and moons and other stuff in our solar system even get their names? And what about the various mountains and crevices on the actual planets, do those features get names?

Of course, all languages have their own names for the planets and their moons, but when discussing the official scientific names we must turn to the IAU. The job of the International Astronomical Union is ” to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects,” including the official names of all things in space. In their terms, “unambiguous astronomical nomenclature.”

There are a few steps on deciding on these official names, and it all starts with the discovery of the moon or feature. Once the thing-to-be-named is properly confirmed to exist, several names are considered by a Task Group. Names successfully reviewed by the Task Group move onto the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN). If the WGPSN gives the final approval for the name, it is immediately entered in the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature, the official reference for all solar system names.

Let’s take a short flip through of the Gazetteer and dive into some planetary naming.

NASA Solar System Image Gallery

Mercury – named after the Roman god of commerce, travel, and thieves because it moves so fast across the sky. Mercury has no moons. Themes for naming planetary features include abandoned cities, words for “snake” and “hot” in different languages, and significant works of architecture.

Venus – named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, because it is the brightest and most beautiful planet. Venus also has no moons. Themes for naming planetary features include different types of goddesses, mythological heroines, and women who have made outstanding contributions to their field.

The Moon – in other languages it is known as Luna, Lune, Mond, and Selene. The Moon is Earth’s satellite. Themes for naming features on the Moon include significant cosmonauts, astronomers, and scientists, as well Latin terms for weather and other abstract concepts. Although the Moon has the most well-developed nomenclature since it is the easiest to study, only twenty eight craters on the Moon are named for women out of the 1586 craters. For more information on this disparity and these remarkable women, I would recommend reading The Women of the Moon by Daniel R. Altschuler and Fernando J. Ballesteros.

The SETI Institute

Mars – named for the Roman god of war, appropriate for the striking red planet. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos (fear and panic respectively). These are the names of the mythological horses which pulled Mars’ chariot. Themes for naming planetary features include names from classical mythology, names of rivers, and small towns and villages of the world. Features on Phobos are named after scientists who studied these two moons and people/places from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Features on Deimos are named after authors who wrote about the Martian satellites.

Jupiter – named after the Roman King of the gods, the god of sky and thunder, which is an appropriate name for the largest planet in our solar system. Jupiter has 79 moons, which are all named after the mythological children of Jupiter. Themes of the features on the satellites include:

  • Io – heroes and gods related to fire, sun, and volcanoes, mythical blacksmiths, and people/places from Dante’s Inferno
  • Europa – gods, heroes, and places from Celtic myths, as well as Celtic stone rows
  • Ganymede – gods and heroes of the ancient Fertile Crescent civilization, places from Egyptian myths, and astronomers who discovered Jovian moons
  • Callisto – all names are drawn from myths and stories of cultures of the Far North, such as Norse, Inuit, Sami, etc.
Shutterstock photo from a Derry Journal Article

Saturn – named for the Roman god of wealth and agriculture. In Greek mythology, Saturn’s equivalent is the father of Jupiter’s Greek equivalent. Saturn has 82 moons, which are named after Greek giants, titans, and titan descendants. Themes of the features on some of the satellites include:

  • Mimas – people/places from Le Morte d’Arthur legends
  • Enceladus – people/places from Burton’s Arabian Nights
  • Tethys – people/places from Homer’s Odyssey
  • Dione – people/places from Virgil’s Aeneid
  • Titan – islands on Earth that are not politically independent, people/places from Middle-earth (from the novels of J.R.R. Tolkein), characters from the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, and names of planets from the Dune series by Frank Herbert

Uranus – named after the Greek deity of the heavens, who is the father of the Greek equivalent of Saturn. Sir William Herschel, who first discovered Uranus, originally wanted to name it “Georgium Sidus” or the Georgian planet in honor of King George the III. Uranus has 27 moons, which are named for magical spirits from Shakespeare or Alexander Pope. The reasoning could be that Uranus, as the god of the air, would be attended by spirits of that realm such as fairies and sylphs. Themes of the features on some of the satellites include:

  • Puck – mischievous spirits
  • Ariel – light spirits
  • Umbriel – dark spirits
  • Oberon – Shakespearean tragic heroes and places
Podcast post from KUAF

Neptune – named after the Roman god of the seas, a perfect match for Neptune’s bright blue color. Neptune has 14 moons, named after minor water gods in Greek mythology. Themes of the features on these satellites follow the same trend.

Dwarf Planets

Pluto – named after the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto has 5 moons, which are also named in relation to the underworld. Features on Pluto also follow this naming theme. Themes of the features on some of the satellites include:

  • Charon – destinations of mythical space and fictional vessels/voyagers of space and other exploration
  • Kerberos – dogs from literature, history, and mythology
  • Hydra – legendary serpents and dragons

Ceres – named after the Roman goddess of corn and agriculture. Ceres has no moons, and its features are named after gods and goddesses of agriculture and agricultural festivals.

Sources: Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature, Uranus Facts, NASA’s StarChild Questions, The 219 Moons of the Planets

15 thoughts on “How do we name our Solar System?

  1. Awesome post Avery, I only knew the naming convention of the eight planets in our solar system until this post. I think it is interesting that although these names are decided by the International Astronomical Union, most of them are from Greek/Roman mythology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely agree; one of the most interesting things to see was the blending of classical mythological names with names from Dante’s Inferno or names in different languages. I still hope to see Star Wars references show up one day!

      Like

  2. Hi Avery! Thank you for this post. I learned a lot about the origins and trends for the naming of planetary moons when reading this. Did you see how many moons Jupiter and Saturn have?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did! I didn’t realize how many they had! It was interesting too that some of the moons aren’t even confirmed to exist yet and therefore don’t have official names. Crazy to think we still truly don’t have our whole solar system mapped out.

      Like

  3. This post was very interesting to me! I never really looked into how each planet, dwarf planet, moon, etc got its name. The history of each name was very intriguing. I learned a lot about the origins and themes for naming each celestial body when reading this. Which planet’s theme was the most interesting to you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Probably the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, since I loved seeing how iconic works of literature were represented. The names aren’t just scientists, but artists, poets, and authors are represented too; for someone who loves English, it was amazing to see!

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  4. Hi Avery! I really appreciate how you explained everything so clearly regarding this topic. I had no idea the origins behind how and why the bodies within our solar system were named before reading your post so I learned a lot! I think it would also be interesting to look into the naming system behind not only our solar system but other galaxies as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that would be really interesting! I didn’t see anything about how galaxies are named, but I was just looking within our universe. If we do another blog with any topic, I will definitely investigate.

      Like

  5. From a TA: In the era of discovering planets outside of our solar system, called extrasolar planets or exoplanets for short, there is the possibility that the moons of these exoplanet could have their own sub-satellites. While I don’t think there is an official name for sub-satellites of exomoons, I like the current signifier: moon-moon.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I am not certain that this is an officially designated name, but I heard an asteroid’s moon in a paper called a “moonlet” and thought that was a fun name.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I didn’t even know asteroids could have moons – I wonder how many moonlets exist out there. And if asteroids can have moons, could their moons have moons? Or could the moons of planets have moons?

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  6. Hey, thanks for such an in depth post! I’ve never really thought about what goes into naming each planet, but this was fascinating to read. Did you enjoy reading about any particular planet?

    Liked by 1 person

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