Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature
International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN)
Planetary Names: History of Planetary Nomenclature

History of Planetary Nomenclature


The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has been the arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since its organizational meeting in 1919 in Brussels. At that time a committee was appointed to regularize the chaotic lunar and Martian nomenclatures then current. The IAU committee was an outgrowth of an earlier committee established in 1907 by the Council of the International Association of Academies, meeting in General Assembly in Vienna. This committee had been charged with the task of clarifying the lunar nomenclature but had not published a report, due to a succession of deaths of members. However, a great deal of preliminary work had been done by Mary Adela Blagg, a volunteer who had been assisting a deceased member of the Council of International Association of Academies, Samuel Arthur Saunder, before the IAU was ever formed. Blagg was appointed as a member of the first IAU commission on lunar nomenclature.

The IAU appointed Miss Blagg and several other astronomers to the newly commissioned nomenclature committee, chaired by H. H. Turner (IAU, 1922). The report of this committee, "Named Lunar Formations" by Blagg and Muller (1935), was the first systematic listing of lunar nomenclature. Later, "The System of Lunar Craters, quadrants I, II, III, IV" was published by D.W.G. Arthur and others (1963, 1964, 1965, 1966), under the direction of Gerard P. Kuiper. These catalogues listed the names (or other designations) and coordinates of features in the current, greatly expanded lunar nomenclature; the accompanying map (also in four parts) showed their locations. These works were adopted by the IAU and became the recognized sources for lunar nomenclature.

Martian nomenclature was clarified in 1958, when an ad hoc committee of the IAU chaired by Audouin Dollfus recommended for adoption the names of 128 albedo features (bright, dark, or colored) observed through ground-based telescopes (IAU, 1960). These names were based on a system of nomenclature developed in the late 19th century by the Italian astronomer G.V. Schiaparelli (1879) and expanded in the early 20th century by E. M. Antoniadi (1929), a Greek-born astronomer working at Meudon, France.

The requirements for extraterrestrial nomenclature were dramatically changed in 1957 when the age of space exploration was inaugurated by the successful flight of Sputnik and by America's consequent determination to land a man on the Moon in the 1960s. As detailed images became available of one newly discriminated extraterrestrial surface after another, the need to name features on these surfaces became evident. Once again the IAU assumed the task of expanding and overseeing planetary nomenclature so that the effort would proceed in an orderly, fair, and evenhanded way.

In 1970, in response to the successful Mariner flyby missions to Mars during the 1960s, and in anticipation of the Mariner 9 Mars Orbiter, a Mars nomenclature working group was formed, chaired by Gerard de Vaucouleurs; this group was asked to designate names for the topographic features shown in the new spacecraft images (de Vaucouleurs and others, 1975). At about the same time, Donald H. Menzel chaired an ad hoc lunar committee that suggested names for features discriminated by the Soviet Zond and American Lunar Orbiter and Apollo cameras (IAU, 1971).

At the 1973 meeting of the IAU in Sydney, Australia, the nomenclature groups were reorganized and expanded. The Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) was formed with Peter Millman of Canada as its first president. Task groups for the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the Outer Solar System were formed to conduct the preliminary work of choosing themes and proposing names for features on each newly discriminated planet and satellite. In 1982 at Patras, Greece, Harold Masursky of the U.S.A. became president of the WGPSN; he was succeeded in 1991 by Kaare Aksnes of Norway, and Kaare was succeeded in 2006 by Rita Schulz of Germany. A new task group was formed in 1984 to name surface features on small primitive bodies (asteroids and comets). The WGPSN was part of IAU Division F from 2012 to August 2021. As of August 2021, the WGPSN is an Executive Committee Working Group.

References Cited

Antoniadi, E. M., 1930, La Planéte Mars, pl. 2-5: Paris, Librairie Scientifique Herman et Cie., 239 p.

Arthur, D.W.G., Agnieray, A.P., Horvath, R.A., Wood, C.A., and Chapman, C.R., 1963, The system of lunar craters, quadrant I: Communications of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, v. 2, no. 30, p. 71-78, 4 unnumbered appendixes, and 12 unnumbered maps.

_____ 1964, The system of lunar craters, quadrant II: Communications of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, v. 3, no. 40, p. 1-59 and 12 unnumbered maps.

Arthur, D.W.G., Agnieray, A.P., Pellicori, R.H., Wood, C.A., and Weller, T., 1965, The system of lunar craters, quadrant III: Communications of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, v. 3, no. 50, p. 61-62, catalogue p. 1-146 and 12 unnumbered maps.

Arthur, D.W.G., Pellicori, R.H., and Wood, C.A., 1966, The system of lunar craters, quadrant IV: Communications of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, v. 5, no. 70, catalogue p. 1-208 and 12 unnumbered maps.

Batson, R.M., and Russell, J.F., editors, 1995, Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature 1994, 295 p.

Blagg, Mary, and Müller, Karl, 1935, Named lunar formations: London, Percy Lund, Humphries & Co. Ltd., 196 p.

International Astronomical Union, 1922, Transactions of the International Astronomical Union, Rome, May 12-20, 1922: London, Imperial College Bookstall, v. 1, p. 52-53.

_____ 1960, Transactions of the International Astronomical Union, Moscow, August 12-20, 1958: Cambridge University Press, v. 10, pl. 1, p. 262.

_____ 1971, Commission 17: The Moon, in Proceedings of the 14th General Assembly, Brighton, 1970: Transactions of the International Astronomical Union, v. 14B, p. 138-145.

_____ 1977, Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, in Proceedings of the 16th General Assembly, Grenoble, 1976: Transactions of the International Astronomical Union, v. 16B, p. 321-369.

Masursky, Harold, and others, 1986, Annual gazetteer of planetary nomenclature: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 84-692.

Schiaparelli, G.V., 1879, Osservazioni astronomiche e fisiche sull'asse di rotazione e sulla topografia del pianeta Marte, in Atti della R. Accademia del Lincei, Memoria della cl. di scienze fisiche. Memoria 2, ser. 3, v. 10, 1880-81, p. 281-387.

de Vaucouleurs, Gerard, Blunck, Jürgen, Davies, Merton, Dollfus, Audouin, Koval, I.K., Kuiper, G.P., Masursky, Harold, Miyamoto, S., Moroz, V.I., Sagan, Carl, and Smith, Bradford, 1975, The new Martian nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union: Icarus, v. 26, p. 85-98.