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Moon and Saturn

July 7, 2014

When Giovanni Cassini discovered four new moons of Saturn in the 1670s and ’80s, he named them for his patron, King Louis XIV of France. Other astronomers weren’t so keen on the idea, though, so the “Stars of Louis” never caught on. Instead, a couple of centuries later the moons were named for the Titans — the giants who ruled before the gods of Olympus. The Titans were led by Cronus, the Greek version of Saturn.

Giovanni Cassini tried to name the moons of Saturn for Louix XIV of FranceGiovanni Cassini tried to name the moons of Saturn for Louix XIV of FranceNaming astronomical objects has always been a bit of a problem. In the early 20th century, for example, several astronomers had published maps of the Moon with their own sets of names. That made it difficult to discuss individual features at conferences or in papers.

So in 1919, astronomers agreed to give the job to the International Astronomical Union — a job it still does today. It not only names moons and other bodies, but it also names the features on those bodies.

The names are suggested by scientists who want to report on particular features. IAU committees review and approve the names, which must fall into specific categories for each body and each type of feature. On Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, for example, mountains are named for mountains in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, while bright streaks along the surface are named for rain gods.

And Saturn is in great view tonight. It looks like a bright star close above the Moon as night falls, and just to the right of the Moon as they set in the wee hours of the morning.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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