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Planetary nomenclature

Planetary nomenclature, like terrestrial nomenclature, is used to uniquely identify a feature on the surface of a planet or natural satellite so that the feature can be easily located, described, and discussed.

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How names are approved

When images are first obtained of the surface of a planet or satellite, a theme for naming features is chosen and a few important features are named, usually by members of the appropriate IAU task group. Later, as higher resolution images and maps become available, additional features are named at the request of investigators mapping or describing specific surfaces, features, or geologic formations. Anyone may suggest that a specific name be considered by a task group. If the members of the task group agree that the name is appropriate, it can be retained for use when there is a request from a member of the scientific community that a specific feature be named. Names successfully reviewed by a task group are submitted to the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN). Upon successful review by the members of the WGPSN, names are considered provisionally approved and can be used on maps and in publications as long as the provisional status is clearly stated. Provisional names are then presented for adoption to the IAU's General Assembly, which meets triennially. A name is not considered to be official--that is, "adopted"--until the General Assembly has given its approval.

IAU Rules and Conventions

Names adopted by the IAU must follow various rules and conventions established and amended through the years by the Union. These include:

  1. Nomenclature is a tool and the first consideration should be to make it simple, clear, and unambiguous.
  2. The number of names chosen for each body should be kept to a minimum, and their placement governed by the requirements of the scientific community.
  3. Duplication of the same name on two or more bodies is to be avoided.
  4. Individual names chosen for each body should be expressed in the language of origin. Transliteration for various alphabets should be given, but there will be no translation from one language to another.
  5. Where possible, the themes established in early solar system nomenclature should be used and expanded on.
  6. Solar system nomenclature should be international in its choice of names. Recommendations submitted to the IAU national committees will be considered, but final selection of the names is the responsibility of the International Astronomical Union. The WGPSN strongly supports equitable selection of names from ethnic groups/countries on each map; however, a higher percentage of names from the country planning a landing is allowed on landing site maps.
  7. No names having political, military or religious significance may be used, except for names of political figures prior to the 19th century.
  8. Commemoration of persons on planetary bodies should not be a goal in itself but should be reserved for persons of high and enduring international standing. Persons being so honored must have been deceased for at least three years.
  9. When more than one spelling of a name is extant, the spelling preferred by the person, or used in an authoritative reference, should be used. Diacritical marks are a necessary part of a name and will be used.
  10. Ring and ring-gap nomenclature and names for newly discovered satellites are developed in joint deliberation between WGPSN and IAU Commission 20. Names will not be assigned to satellites until their orbital elements are reasonably well known or definite features have been identified on them.

In addition to these general rules, each task group develops additional conventions as it formulates an interesting and meaningful nomenclature for individual planetary bodies.

Naming Conventions

Names for all planetary features include a descriptor term, with the exception of two feature types. For craters, the descriptor term is implicit. Some features named on Io and Triton do not carry a descriptor term because they are ephemeral.

In general, the naming convention for a feature type remains the same regardless of its size. Exceptions to this rule are channels (valles) on Mars and craters on the Moon, Mars, and Venus; naming conventions for these features differ according to size. The categories for naming features on each planet or satellite (and the exceptions) are listed in Appendix 6. One feature classification, regio, was originally used on early maps of the Moon and Mercury (drawn from telescopic observations) to describe vague albedo features. It is now used to delineate a broad geographic region.

Named features on bodies so small that coordinates have not yet been determined are identified on drawings of the body that are included in the IAU Transactions volume of the year when the names were adopted. Satellite rings and gaps in the rings are named for scientists who have studied these features; drawings that show these names are also included in the pertinent Transactions volume. Names for atmospheric features are informal at present; a formal system will be chosen in the future.

The boundaries of many large features (such as terrae, regiones, planitiae, and plana) are not topographically or geomorphically distinct; the coordinates of these features are identified from an arbitrarily chosen center point. Boundaries (and thus coordinates) may be determined more accurately from geochemical and geophysical data obtained by future missions.

Descriptor Terms (Feature Types)

Feature Description Designation
Albedo Feature AL
Astrum, astra Radial-patterned features on Venus AS
Catena, catenae Chain of craters CA
Cavus, cavi Hollows, irregular steep-sided depressions usually in arrays or clusters CB
Chaos Distinctive area of broken terrain CH
Chasma, chasmata A deep, elongated, steep-sided depression CM
Colles Small hills or knobs CO
Corona, coronae Ovoid-shaped feature CR
Crater, craters A circular depression AA
Dorsum, dorsa Ridge DO
Eruptive center Active volcanic centers on Io ER
Facula, faculae Bright spot FA
Farrum, farra Pancake-like structure, or a row of such structures FR
Flexus, flex-us A very low curvilinear ridge with a scalloped pattern FE
Fluctus, fluct-us Flow terrain FL
Fossa, fossae Long, narrow, shallow depression FO
Labes, lab-es Landslide LA
Labyrinthus, labyrinthi Complex of intersecting valleys LB
Lacus(1) "Lake"; small plain LC
Landing site name Lunar features at or near Apollo landing sites LF
Large ringed feature Cryptic ringed features LG
Lenticula, lenticulae Small dark spots on Europa LE
Linea, lineae A dark or bright elongate marking, may be curved or straight LI
Macula, maculae Dark spot, may be irregular MA
Mare(1), maria "Sea"; large circular plain ME
Mensa, mensae A flat-topped prominence with cliff-like edges MN
Mons, montes Mountain MO
Oceanus(1) A very large dark area on the moon OC
Palus(1), paludes "Swamp"; small plain PA
Patera, paterae An irregular crater, or a complex one with scalloped edges PE
Planitia, planitiae Low plain PL
Planum, plana Plateau or high plain PM
Plume PU
Promontorium(1), promontoria "Cape"; headland PR
Regio, regiones A large area marked by reflectivity or color distinctions from adjacent areas, or a broad geographic region RE
Reticulum, reticula reticular (netlike) pattern on Venus RT
Rima, rimae(1) Fissure RI
Rupes, rup-es Scarp RU
Scopulus, scopuli Lobate or irregular scarp SC
Sinus "Bay"; small plain SI
Sulcus, sulci Subparallel furrows and ridges SU
Terra, terrae Extensive land mass TA
Tessera, tesserae Tile-like, polygonal terrain TE
Tholus, tholi Small domical mountain or hill TH
Undae Dunes UN
Vallis, valles Valley VA
Vastitas, vastitates Extensive plain VS

(1) Used only on the Moon

Categories for naming features on planets and satellites


Craters Famous deceased artists, musicians, painters, authors
Montes Caloris, from Latin word for "hot"
Planitiae Names for Mercury (either planet or god) in various languages
Rup-es Ships of discovery or scientific expeditions
Valles Radio telescope facilities


Astra Goddesses, miscellaneous
Chasmata Goddesses of hunt; moon goddesses
Colles Sea goddesses
Coronae Fertility and earth goddesses
Craters Over 20 km; famous women; under 20 km, common female first names
Dorsa Sky goddesses
Farrum Water goddesses
Fluct-us Goddesses, miscellaneous
Fossae Goddesses of war
Labyrinthus Goddesses, miscellaneous
Lineae Goddesses of war
Montes Goddesses, miscellaneous (also one radar scientist)
Paterae Famous women
Planitiae Mythological heroines
Planum Goddesses of prosperity
Regiones Giantesses and Titanesses (also two Greek alphanumeric)
Rup-es Goddesses of hearth and home
Tesserae Goddesses of fate and fortune
Terrae Goddesses of love
Tholi Goddesses, miscellaneous
Undae Desert goddesses
Valles Word for planet Venus in various world languages (400 km and longer); river goddesses (less than 400 km in length)

The Moon

Craters, Catenae, Dorsa, Rimae Large craters: famous deceased scientists, scholars, artists; small craters: common first names. Other features named from nearby craters
Lac-us, Maria, Paludes, Sin-us Latin terms describing weather and other abstract concepts
Montes Terrestrial mountain ranges or nearby craters
Rup-es Names of nearby mountain ranges (terrestrial names)
Valles Name of nearby features

Mars and martian satellites


Large craters Deceased scientists who have contributed to the study of Mars; writers and others who have contributed to the lore of Mars
Small craters Villages of the world with a population of less than 100,000.
Large valles Name for Mars/star in various languages
Small valles Classical or modern names of rivers
Other features From nearest named albedo feature on Schiaparelli or Antoniadi maps


Authors who wrote about Martian satellites


Scientists involved with the discovery, dynamics, or properties of the Martian satellites

Satellites of Jupiter


People and places associated with the Amalthea myth


People and places associated with the Thebe myth


Active eruptive centers Fire, sun, thunder gods and heroes
Catenae Sun gods
Fluct-us Name derived from nearby named feature, or fire, sun, thunder, volcano gods, goddesses and heroes, mythical blacksmiths
Mensae People associated with Io myth, derived from nearby feature, or from Dante's Inferno
Montes Places associated with Io myth, derived from nearby feature, or from Dante's Inferno
Paterae Fire, sun, thunder, volcano gods, heroes, goddesses, mythical blacksmiths
Plana Places associated with Io myth, derived from nearby feature, or from Dante's Inferno
Regiones Places associated with Io myth, derived from nearby feature, or from Dante's Inferno
Tholi Places associated with Io myth, derived from nearby feature, or from Dante's Inferno


Chaos Places associated with Celtic myths
Craters Celtic gods and heroes
Flex-us Places associated with the Europa myth
Large ringed features Celtic stone circles
Lenticulae Celtic gods and heroes
Lineae People associated with the Europa myth
Maculae Places associated with the Europa myth
Regiones Places associated with Celtic myths


Catenae Gods and heroes of ancient Fertile Crescent people
Craters Gods and heroes of ancient Fertile Crescent people
Faculae Places associated with Egyptian myths
Fossae Gods (or principals) of ancient Fertile Crescent people
Regiones Astronomers who discovered Jovian satellites
Sulci Places associated with myths of ancient people


Large ringed features Homes of the gods and of heroes
Craters Heroes and heroines from northern myths
Catenae Mythological places in high latitudes

Satellites of Saturn


People from myth of Castor and Pollux (twins)


People from myth of Castor and Pollux (twins)


People and places from Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur legends (Baines translation)


People and places from Burton's Arabian Nights


People and places from Homer's Odyssey


People and places from Virgil's Aeneid


People and places from creation myths


Ancient displaced cultures


Sun and Moon deities


People and places from Sayers' translation of Chanson de Roland


People associated with Phoebe, islands of the Greek archipelagos

Satellites of Uranus


Mischievous (Pucklike) spirits (class)


Characters, places from Shakespeare's plays


Light spirits (individual and class)


Dark spirits (individual)


Female Shakespearean characters, places


Shakespearean tragic heroes and places

Small satellites

Heroines from Shakespeare and Pope

Satellites of Neptune


Water-related spirits, gods, goddesses (excluding Greek and Roman names)


Aquatic names, excluding Roman and Greek. Possible categories include worldwide aquatic spirits, famous terrestrial fountains or fountain locations, terrestrial aquatic features, famous terrestrial geysers or geyser locations, terrestrial islands.


Individual nereids

Small satellites

Gods and goddesses associated with Neptune/Poseidon mythology or generic mythological aquatic beings


Underworld deities


243 Ida

Craters Caverns and grottos of the world
Dorsa Galileo project participants
Regiones Discoverer of Ida and places associated with the discoverer


CratersIdaean dactyls

951 Gaspra

Craters Spas of the world
Regiones Discoverer of Gaspra, and Galileo project participants

253 Mathilde

CratersCoal fields and basins of the world

433 Eros

Craters Mythological and legendary names of an erotic nature
Regiones Discoverers of Eros
Dorsa Scientists who have contributed to the exploration and study of Eros

Contents adapted from the public domain work United States Geological Survey Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature (http://planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov/)

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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