By the time the 2070s roll around, we should be able to make a genuine human landing on the red planet. But before we set off to blast off, there are a few things that we need to clear up. According to renowned rocket scientist Joel Spitzer, who’s worked on NASA’s Mars probes for more than 30 years, we shouldn’t call it the Moon.
We’re an advanced species and we’re not afraid to talk about our differences. But there’s no need to throw out a familiar name for one of the most prominent elements in our solar system.
According to Spitzer, who’s published over 160 scientific papers on a wide range of space topics, the moon is a completely arbitrary name for the spot that is closest to Earth—it doesn’t represent the moon at all.
The first meeting of the International Astronomical Union was held in 1929, and the name “Moon” was proposed to describe a body that is near us. But after dozens of meetings, a group of scientists decided that the proposed name “Moon,” while nice, was too arbitrary. So they went with “Pallas,” an ancient Greek goddess that was involved in warfare, astronomy, and astronomy.
In the years since we first discovered that “Pallas” would work nicely as a name for our moon, the IAU hasn’t changed its mind. So, when it comes to the lack of fuss when referring to the moon, one has to wonder why.
In a conference call with press after Spitzer’s June speech at the 51st Annual General Conference of the American Astronomical Society, he theorized it’s because “Pallas” sounds like something that’d be considered good for summer. However, “Pallas” doesn’t offer the same weighty claim to history as “moon.”
While the moon might not have the historical weight that “Pallas” has, there’s plenty to ponder about the relative status of each of the four major bodies in our solar system: the Moon, the Sun, the Earth, and the smallest planet in our neighborhood, Mercury. We call the exteriors of those bodies the outer planets, the inner planets, and the inner and outer moons of the Earth, respectively.
Spitzer, who is director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, points out that it’s never been popular to change planets’ names.
“I can’t remember one instance in which they called them up in front of people,” he said.
The IAU has included “Pallas” on their official list of planets, so we shouldn’t expect them to change the way we refer to our moon, but we might as well sit down and have a discussion about the name as it pertains to space.
Spitzer believes that the problem lies in the function that this mythical “Pallas” brings to the table. As much as I love the ancient Roman goddess, the outer planets, and the main body of the Earth, Spitzer maintains that the space (other than the Earth’s) is one of the only places where we have a common denominator that can’t be claimed.
“Space is unique,” he explained. “Even Antarctica is the most diverse place in the solar system.”
Unfortunately, the name “Moon” only ever had a generic meaning. And until we’re able to answer Spitzer’s question about how this dust will affect both the way people call our moon as well as our perspective on it, “Pallas” will stand as the definitive title for our closest celestial neighbour.
Right now, NASA’s Gemini project in the early 70s pushed the Moon a little closer and farther away, but it wasn’t until Spitzer and his team studied the same data that they realized how small the distance really was.
When it comes to “Moon” the Earth is significantly smaller than the Moon. If we were to spend a visit on the moon, we would probably be a bit surprised about just how much greater our distance from the planet really is.
Spitzer, who has authored over 40 books on astrophysics, even proposed changing the name of an asteroid named after him as well. The 2016 asteroid, named “Spitzer,” should have been called “Asteroid.” But when NASA contacted him about the change, he advised against it.
“I am fairly thrilled with the name, and they haven’t had any history of changing,” he said. “They were tempted, but they didn’t even consider my point of view.”
With the launch of SpaceX’s launch pad Dragon V2, NASA’s spacecraft, the job of retrieving raw data from the moon is just around the corner.