A Moon Called Polyphemus? Naming Neptune’s Newest

BY Jenny Marder  July 17, 2013 at 2:46 PM EDT

This computer-generated montage shows Neptune and Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, from January 1990. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images.

A new, far-flung moon orbiting Neptune was discovered earlier this month and announced this week, bringing that planet’s cache of known moons up to 14. Now scientists are faced with the daunting process of naming it.

They can’t call it just anything. The criteria is pretty darn strict. According to Mark Showalter of Mountain View’s SETI Institute, who spotted the thing against all odds — it was hidden deep in Hubble Space Telescope data — its name must derive from a Greek or Roman deity. And it must be associated with Neptune or Poseidon or the sea. Which, he said, covers a lot more territory than you’d think — those Roman and Greek gods had a lot of kids.

He is leaning toward naming the moon after the Cyclops, Polyphemus, the gigantic one-eyed son of Poseidon and Thoosa, a sea nymph. Polyphemus is best known for his role in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. You may remember that after Odysseus and 12 of his crew landed on the island of Cyclopes, Polyphemus trapped them in a cave with a boulder, devoured two of the men for dinner, fell asleep and then ate two more for breakfast. The remaining men eventually escaped after plunging the creature in the eye with a wooden spike and blinding him.

“I happen to like hideous monsters myself,” Showalter told me. “That’s just a personal bias.”

The guidelines are laid out by the International Astronomical Union and can be found here.

But Showalter may take another route and crowdsource the moon, which is currently referred to as S/2004 N 1. That’s what he did with the two newest Pluto moons, which he also discovered. He held an Internet contest for the names. The winners were Kerberos, named for the three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to Hades, the underworld in Greek mythology, and Styx, after the river that separated Earth and underworld.

Pluto’s satellites and moons are named after mythological characters related to Hades and the classical Greek and Roman Underworld, according to the IAU. Moons orbiting Uranus are named for characters from Shakespeare’s plays and from Pope’s “Rape of the Lock.” In the Saturnian system, they’re named for ‘Greco-Roman titans, descendants of the titans, the Roman god of the beginning, and giants from Greco-Roman and other mythologies.” And in Jupiter, they’re named after Zeus’s lovers and descendants.

The newest moon is tiny (about 12 miles in diameter), located between fellow moons Larissa and Proteus, and it zips around Neptune every 23 hours.

And as to whether there are more, undiscovered moons around the planet?

“I would say [the likelihood is] very high,” Showalter said. “It would be a foolish prediction to say, we’ve found the last one. At this point, it would have to be less than half as bright as M-14, or we would have seen it.”

QUICK BITES

  • A wonderfully terrifying post by the Atlantic’s Megan Garber on Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano’s latest spacewalk, when his helmet suddenly started filling up with water. Here’s an excerpt:

Imagine you’re an astronaut. Imagine you’re on a spacewalk. Imagine, in other words, that you are whirling above the Earth at more than 17,000 miles an hour, the only thing between you and the deadly vacuum of space a padded suit, a hardened helmet, and an umbilical tether that you hope is really, really strong.

Now imagine that your helmet, suddenly, starts filling with liquid. At first you think it’s sweat, condensing as it leaves your skin. But then more liquid starts to seep in. You think it’s water. But you’re not entirely sure. And there’s more of it, and more of it, clinging to your face, clogging your ears, covering your eyes.

  • An eerie sound: A volcano screams before it erupts. You can hear the audio captured on tape here.

  • Astronauts need their morning coffee too. And scientists are working on the problem.

  • Explore.org has live webcams watching the brown bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park hunt for salmon. Watch here:

  • Weeds. Try to kill them. Just try. Barnyardgrass, for example, is particularly harmful to rice fields, where it sometimes wipes out 100 percent of harvestable crops. Even when farmers think they’ve removed it from a field, a plant may have already dropped up to a million seeds, which lay dormant in the soil, waiting for better growing conditions. Worldwide, weeds have never been more adaptable or harder to kill. Carl Zimmer reports.

Rebecca Jacobson, Patti Parson and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.