After delivering the devastating news to the 170,000 or so people who voted for "Vulcan" as a name for one of Pluto's recently discovered moons, SETI Institute planetary astronomer Mark Showalter offered Star Trek fans a possible consolation prize.
"We might have craters called Sulu and Spock and Kirk and McCoy and so on," said Dr. Showalter, in a Google Hangout video.
Showalter had just announced that the new official names for Pluto's moons, as selected by the International Astronomical Union, would be Kerberos and Styx, names that received fewer than 100,000 votes each in a public poll.
Even though "Vulcan" had the most votes, the IAU rejected it for two reasons. First, it had been the name of a planet that was thought in the 19th century to exist between Mercury and the sun, as a way of explaining peculiarities in Mercury's orbit. Einstein's Theory of General Relativity did away with the need for this extra planet, but these days, the term "Vulcanoid" describes an asteroid – also hypothetical – that orbits close to the sun.
Second, the IAU said that "Vulcan" didn't fit in with the mythological underworld theme that guided the naming of Pluto's four other moons. Kerberos is the name of the three-headed canine that guards the gates to Hades, and Styx is the name of the river that separates the worlds of the living and the dead, as well as the name of the goddess who guards that river.
Pluto's other moons are named Charon, Nix, and Hydra. Charon is the ferryman who transports the souls of the dead across the Styx; Nix is the goddess of the night who lives in a deep abyss in the underworld, and Hydra is a many-headed serpent who guards a lake that is an entrance to Hades.
So no Vulcan. The name is at once too familiar and insufficiently hellish. But, as the SETI institute's Showalter noted, its still possible that Star Trek fans might get a few craters named for their spacefaring heroes.
And yet, those craters are currently just as hypothetical as Vulcan and the Vulcanoids. There's no reason to believe that Pluto doesn't have them; indeed, it would be surprising if the dwarf planet turned out to be as smooth as a cue ball. But nobody has ever actually seen a Plutonian pockmark.
That's because the sharpest images we have of Pluto were snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope a decade ago. The Hubble's cameras, impressive as they are, can only capture surface variations on the frozen dwarf planet that are more than a few hundred miles across.
We'll probably soon be getting much crisper images, though, thanks to a NASA probe launched in 2006. Designed to study the icy worlds at the edge of our solar system, the New Horizons spacecraft is currently hurtling through space at more than 30,000 miles per hour, some 2.3 billion miles from Earth. It is about half a billion miles away from Pluto, where it is expected to perform a flyby in July 2015.
When New Horizons is about six months away from Pluto, it will be close enough to provide us with the clearest shots yet of the world's surface, along with the opportunity to name its geological features after Kirk, Picard, Spock, Data, Scotty, and perhaps even the seriously underrated Lt. Reginald Barclay.
This would be unlikely to satisfy the original Kirk, however. Upon learning that the best he and his fan base could expect are the bitter dregs of the Pluto system, William Shatner took to his Twitter account to sound off:
"Did you hear the consolation?" wrote Mr. Shatner. "They may name a crater after Kirk. A pockmark on a planetoid is a fitting tribute? (Rolling my eyes.)"
During the Google hangout, Showalter left open the possibility that a planet outside our solar system could still be christened Vulcan.
"I think the IAU is still grappling with the whole issue of how to name extra-solar planets, so I wouldn't rule it out," he said. "But I think the fact that everybody in our field actually knows what Vulcan is, means that it's something we should think twice about before we use it as a name for something else."
But even if Spock's homeworld is never honored, there are plenty of other Star Trek planets out there. According to the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia, as of July 1 there are 900 confirmed planets outside our solar system. That's about 100 more than all the planets mentioned in the Star Trek universe – from Acamar III, a war-torn planet near the Romulan Neutral Zone, to Zytchin III, where Capt. Picard once took a rather unremarkable vacation.
An exoplanet named for a Star Trek planet other than Vulcan – perhaps the most fully realized alien planet in the entire franchise – probably wouldn't placate Trekkers, though. But on the plus side, there would be little risk that J.J. Abrams would blow it up.