A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Baby Pictures

Last night, for the second time this decade, I got to have dinner and give a talk on the floor of the dome of the famous 200-inch Hale telescope at Palomar Observatory. It’s rare for anyone to give a talk on the floor of the 200-inch telescope, because Palomar, like every other large telescope around the planet, is used night after night after night looking at everything from the nearest asteroids to the edge of the universe. Few or no pauses are allowed for frivolities such as dinners and talks (in this case we got in, had dinner, gave a talk, and vacated the floor just as the sun was setting). So it was a treat when I got invited to speak to an intimate gathering of supporters of Palomar and Caltech – the university where I work and the one which, not incidentally, owns and operates Palomar – on the floor of the dome. It was even more of a treat because I had been the speaker at the last one of these dinner 8 ½ years ago, and it was particularly interesting to reminisce about what had happened in the almost-decade since then.
When I gave that first talk, in September of 2000, I was a young assistant professor at Caltech who had embarked on what I think it is fair to say was an audacious project: I was going to go find the 10th planet. I had spent the previous two years systematically scanning a wide swath of sky using the seemingly ancient technology of manually slapping giant glass photographic plates to the back of a wide-field telescope, exposing the photographic plates to the sky for half an hour at a time, developing the photographic plates in the darkroom downstairs, and then looking at repeat exposures of the same patch of the sky to see if – perhaps! – I could find something that had moved. It was exactly what Clyde Tombaugh had done 70 years earlier that had led to the discovery of Pluto, but, no, I had the advantage of a much larger telescope and the use of computers to help analyze the final photographic plates.
At the time of the talk 8 ½ years ago I was in the third year of the project, where I was going back with a larger telescope to try to confirm anything that I thought I had detected during the first two years with the photographic survey. I told my audience sitting under the 200-inch telescope about what I was doing and about what I hoped to find. I told them about photographic technology versus the new digital cameras now widely in use. I told them about why I thought that after this third year I was going to have made that discovery I was hoping for and the 10th planet would be in our grasp. It was, I daresay, a talk full of exciting promise.
It’s a good thing I wasn’t asked to give a follow up talk right away.
By the following year it was clear that my three year survey had found a grand total of absolutely nothing.
I told that story last night at the 200-inch telescope and everyone chuckled. They chuckled, of course, only because they knew what came in the years that followed. What came next? We scraped the photographic plates, installed experimental digital cameras, roboticized the telescope, and kept scanning and scanning and scanning. With the benefit of the faster and more sensitive digital cameras we slowly surveyed the whole northern sky and blew the outer solar system open.
Last night I showed my baby pictures from the past decade. I showed Quaoar, the first large Kuiper belt object that we found, the one named for the creation force of the local Tongva Native American tribe, the harbinger of larger objects to come. I showed Orcus with its newly named moon Vanth, and talked about its odd mirror-image orbit to Pluto. I showed Sedna, far beyond the Kuiper belt, in an orbit that takes 12,000 years to go around the sun, named for the frigid Inuit goddess of the sea, a beacon pulling us even further in the distant solar system. I showed Haumea, with her two moons Hi’iiaka and Namaka, spinning her was across the sky, I showed lonely Makemake, bird god of the Rapa Nui, the runt of the litter that produced the Big Three of Makemake, Pluto, and Eris. And then, of course, I showed Eris her, in all of her discord and strife, with her tiny moon Dysnomia circling her.
I really do feel like each one of these is like a child to me. And, like children, whenever the rest of them are not in the room, I will secretly tell you that this one is my favorite. They’re all my favorites. I can tell you stories about their little quirks, their odd habits, and a funny thing that this one did the other day when it thought no one was watching (did you know that the night before Namaka went right behind Haumea playing a little hide-and-seek with us? Silly little moon.).
Something else was particularly interesting to me about my talk 8 ½ years ago at Palomar. Something happened that day that I am certain I will never forget. I was inside the telescope waiting for the group of Caltech supporters to arrive, and finally hearing the knock on the outside door, I opened the door, and, as my eyes adjusted to the blinding outside light, I was greeted by the director of the group of Caltech supporters. She had worked on the Caltech campus for years, but somehow our paths had never crossed. I had certainly never seen her before. How do I know for sure -- you might ask. Trust me -- is my answer. I would have remembered. She walked in the door, and I fumbled my words introducing myself. Her name was Diane Binney.

Diane Binney doesn’t work at Caltech anymore, but she came on the trip to Palomar last night anyway. It was her first time back to the mountain since that time 8 ½ years ago when I gave a talk up there. She came to see old friends and revisit old places. And, since she hadn’t seen many of the people in a long time, she brought baby pictures of her own. She has a 3 ½ year old daughter named Lilah. Lilah has Diane’s last name as a middle name, but she gets the last name from her father. Me. Lilah Binney Brown.

Look up!

My wife noticed, many years ago, that every time I walk outside at night, the first thing I do is to look up. For a while she assumed that it was because I had a telescope operating somewhere and I wanted to see the condition of the sky, the locations of the clouds. Then she realized that I would even do it when she knew that I wasn’t using any telescope anywhere. It’s just what I always did: walked outside, looked up. Finally, she asked me about it. My first reaction was: I do? But then, after awhile, I realized: I do. I am always curious about clouds and about clarity, but mostly I just want to make sure that everything is right with the universe, that all of the stars are in place, that the moon has moved to whichever new spot in the sky it should be that night, that any of the planets that might be up are where they are supposed to be.
Sometimes I get a bit of a jolt, even though I know it is coming. When I fly to Hawaii and go use the telescopes out there I look up at night and see, oddly, that Orion is almost straight overhead, instead of low in the south like it is supposed to be. At that point my eye always travels north to try to find Polaris, now dangerously close to the horizon. Then I take a glance as far to the southern horizon as possible and I see something unsettling: stars I don’t know. I might as well be in another universe.
For all of my traveling the globe to go to telescopes, I’ve only been south of the equator once, for my honeymoon. When I went outside and looked up there, it was an odd combination of familiar and bizarre. In the north, Orion was flying overhead, but upside down. The bright red Betelgeuse, which translates as armpit of the giant, should really be called kneecap of the giant from there. The moon was also much further north than I was prepared for and it, too, was upside down. It really did give me that feeling that I was standing on the opposite side of the world, that my head really was pointing in a different direction than when I was at home.
One of the reasons that I was surprised when my wife mentioned to me that I always look up is because I was a little surprised that everyone else doesn’t do the same thing. The grand vista of the stars and the planets is above us night after night, and all you have to do is to look up. Most people are shocked when you explain to them, for example, that you can look at Betelgeuse and you can look at Sirius, and you can see that they are different colors. They’re amazed to know that that bright light in the twilight sky is not an airplane but is indeed the planet Venus. They are truly floored when you suggest to them that they get out a pair of binoculars and look at Saturn – high over head in the sky these days and you can see the rings. Or the moons of Jupiter. All of the stuff is out there for the taking.
I was in New York City this past week to give a lecture at Sarah Lawrence College. To get to Sarah Lawrence I walked my way down to Grand Central Station in the late afternoon, stared at the board of departures trying to figure out which was the right train to take, bought my ticket at an automated dispenser, and then had a few extra minutes to kill before the train left, so I stepped back against a wall to watch the people go by. Everyone was in a hurry across the floor, trying to catch a train or make their way home. But somebody on the other side of the concourse was doing something that no one else was doing, so it caught my eye. She was looking up. Curious what might be attracting her attention, I did the same, and there, inside of the building, a hundred feet up on a huge dome ceiling, was the sky.
Not just any sky, a spectacular painted sky with stars in place but also the constellations drawn and the ecliptic and celestial equator drawn through! Orion (with a gleaming Betelgeuse in his armpit) battles Taurus the Bull in the heart of the flowing Milky Way while winged Pegasus watched high above. Castor and Pollux look, to me, like they are plotting mischief to the side.
And, with thousands of people streaming through the concourse, there was one – now two – people actually looking up to notice. It reminded me of, well, of Los Angeles at night, where no one bothers to look up.
Because the constellations were painted along with the stars, I concentrated on the constellations. They were what was new to me. When I look at the real sky, I look at the stars, and don’t think much of the constellations, since no one has taken the time to paint them in the sky. But here they were beautifully drawn with sparkling stars as highlights.
Something was a little funny, though. At first, since I was concentrating on those new drawings, instead of on the real stars, I didn’t quite get it. But then it hit me: Taurus is on the wrong side of Orion. Castor and Pollux are switched. And what is Pegasus doing high to the left instead of to the right? It was like the real sky, only backwards.
Backwards is not the same as upside down. Backwards is like a mirror. Backwards it like you never ever really see it anywhere on earth, or, really, anywhere else in the Universe.
My scientific, educational self was offended. What? They spend all of this effort to put the sky on the ceiling and they get it wrong?
The ceiling, though, was copied from artwork that was supposed to be illustrating what the sky looks like from outside the Celestial Sphere. Except for one thing: there is no such thing as a Celestial Sphere. The Celestial Sphere is what you would think was out there if you considered the whole night sky to be a planetarium with little points of light a small distance away. Imagine now that you can sit outside the planetarium and see the stars. This is what the ceiling at Grand Central looks like.
And then I went from slightly offended by the inaccuracy, to thoroughly charmed by the historical accuracy. Yeah, I thought. People really used to think that you could step outside and look in and this is what they would see. This ceiling is fantastic.
It is the International Year of Astronomy.
A few weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion with 4 other astronomers as part of the celebration of the Internation Year. The event was sponsored by, among others, Discover Magazine. In this month’s issue they have a [heavily edited] transcript of the discussion amongst the five of us from the event. I am proud to say that, in the [heavily edited] transcript, I got the last word from the night, based on a question from the audience. Discover Magazine gets the last word:
Audience: What are your hopes for this year’s International Year of Astronomy
Brown: If there is anything I can convince people to do, I want people to not just sit here and listen to astronomers and think about astronomy but to look at the sky. So what I want everyone to do where you walk out tonight is to look up. You’ll see Orion, you’ll see Sirius. Just look up at the sky for a minute and think about what’s out there. That’s what I want.

Kant's Crowded Universe

I was asked by a magazine to review Alan Boss's new book The Crowded Universe. They asked for a review that was a much an essay on the field as a review of the book itself, which made it a very fun exercise. The following is based on the review that I got to write.

Two hundred fifty years ago, Immanuel Kant, in his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, laid out a remarkably modern-sounding account of the state of the universe. Moons go around planets. Planets go around stars. Stars go around the Milky Way. The Milky Way and other galaxies (“other Milky Ways,” he called them) go around something even larger. The solar system had an understandable origin, and inevitable consequences:
The planetary structure in which the sun at the centre makes the spheres found in its system orbit in eternal circles by means of its powerful force of attraction is entirely developed, as we have seen, from the originally distributed basic stuff of all planetary material. All the fixed stars which the eye discovers in the high recesses of the heavens and which appear to display a kind of extravagance are suns and central points of similar systems.
To paraphrase: gravity takes stuff and turns it into stars surrounded by planets, and it has done so everywhere you see a star in the sky.
For the first 240 years after the publication of Kant’s assertion, this fact could only be verified for only a single star in the sky: the sun. In 1995 Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz announced the discovery of the first planet orbiting a star other than the sun. Now, fourteen years later, almost 300 stars are known to have planets around them. It is not quite “all of the fixed stars which the eye discovers,” but it’s getting close. Kant was substantially correct. It had been accepted since the 17th century that our sun is not special, but is, instead, but one of many stars in the universe. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, it is clear that our planets aren’t special either.
Except that some of our planets are still special.
It is tempting to describe the many planetary systems that have been discovered in the past decade and a half as simply weird. Rather than the orderly arrangement of planets that we have here in the solar system, with small planets close, large planets far, and everything going around the sun in satisfyingly circular orbits in a common disk (each one of these properties is “inevitable”, according to Kant, and according to most astronomers up until late 1995), we have instead found planets the size of Jupiter that orbit their stars closer than Mercury, planets with orbits as elliptical as some of the comets in the solar system, and planets with separations from their central star far beyond even the most distant objects detected in our solar system. Weird, indeed. The only type of planetary system that we haven’t found, it seems, is one like our own. Nowhere out there has there been anything quite like the solar system; nowhere out there is another Earth.
But even this special position that our home planet holds is now in jeopardy.
Alan Boss’s new book The Crowded Universe tells the story of the development and launch of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which was recently launched from the earth to go into orbit around the sun. Kepler’s 3 1/2 year mission is simple to state: find the Earths. Kepler, along with a similar ESO mission CoRoT, will be the first to finally have a chance to tell us whether planets like the one on which we live are as common as Kant would hope or as rare as some astronomers think.
Boss weaves the story of Kepler (surely a must-read cautionary tale for anyone contemplating a life in NASA mission development) with the larger story of the entire, now booming, field of exo-planets. As someone whose astronomical career has spanned the period Boss discusses, I’m glad someone was taking notes. It is fun to be able to go back to those days when each new planetary discovery was an exciting event with multiple teams struggling to outdo the others with firsts. First planet at the distance of the earth! First transiting planet! First multiple planet system! With the current richness of the exo-planet field it is easy to forget that almost all of this is under a decade old.
Boss gives the insider story not only of the Kepler mission development and the birth and childhood of the entire exo-planet field, but, in a stroke of luck for us all, he got to play a intimate role in the definition of planets in our own solar system, and he gives what I believe is the first account of some of the inner workings of the International Astronomical Union committee that first started trying to figure out what to do with Pluto and Eris and the things that we now call dwarf planets. The demotion of Pluto was unassailably reasonable, but the events leading up to this eventual demotion were some of the more publicly comical occurrences in recent astronomical history. Reliving these moments is an excellent reminder that for all of their command of the physics of the universe around them, astronomers, being human, have the capacity for nearly infinite folly.
But for Boss and The Crowded Universe, Pluto is just a distraction, and rightly so. The meat of his book is the race for finding something like the Earth. Sitting in the middle of the events, it would be easy to get caught up in the day-to-day (or perhaps committee meeting to committee meeting) details. But Boss, while detailing the daily work of himself and other scientists involved in the field, never ceases to forget that we’re privileged to live in such at a time when a nearly-Copernican-magnitude revolution is unfolding.
Yet even if Kepler and CoRoT find an abundance of planets, the 250 year old Kantian revolution will not be complete. The planets that these spacecraft might find could be the precise size of the Earth and could orbit their stars at the exact distance of the Earth, but while an astronomer might be willing to call such a thing Earth-like, most people will still want to know more. Does it have liquid water? Does it have a recognizable atmosphere? And, inevitably, the only thing that really matters, could it – no: does it – support life?
The answer to these questions will take decades or more to answer. Kepler and CoRot are simply first steps along the way. In the meantime, we can perhaps take solace from Kant:
I am of the opinion that it is not particularly necessary to assert that all planets must be inhabited. However, at the same time it would be absurd to deny this claim with respect to all or even to most of them.
It took 240 years to prove him mostly right the first time. With a little bit of luck and a little bit of perseverance and, as Boss shows, a lot of the day-to-day work of astronomers around the world, the final step might come just a little bit faster.

Orcus Porcus

No, that’s not going to be the name for the satellite of Orcus. But it was suggested a surprising number of times, and it did make me laugh every time I read it.
When I decided, on a whim, to throw open the naming of the moon of Orcus, I thought I’d get a few suggestions here and there and make a quick decision. More than 1000 suggestions later I’m a bit overwhelmed and thoroughly torn. There were good names, silly names, scholarly names, names of people’s pets and wives and girlfriends (never husbands or boyfriends, though, which is interesting). Names came from came – not surprisingly – from Etruscan mythology, but also Norse, Aztec, Greek, Hindu, and many more. There were references to current media in all forms, there was word play, and there were made up names that simply sounded good (or at least someone thought they sounded good).
After sorting through all of the suggestions, as few interesting names/themes stand out.
First, many attempts were made to fit in to the Etruscan origins of Orcus itself. I will admit that these always had the inside track in my mind. We’ll get back to this in a minute, but first, some of the more popular names and themes that I had not originally anticipated:
Disney-related. With Orcus being described as the anti-Pluto there was some sentiment to pull in Disney mythology instead of Etruscan mythology. I’m not opposed to the general idea of moving beyond ancient mythology, so I thought about these. But the problem with all of these names, I felt, was that there was no connection to Orcus, only to Pluto.
Dungeons and Dragons related. Unbeknownst to me, Orcus has been a major figure in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons for the past 30 years. To be fair, though, the phrase “unbeknownst to me” is not exactly true. It really should be “unremembered by me.” My father bought one of the original Dungeons & Dragons sets for my brother and I back in 1976 as a way of keeping his nerdy science fiction loving boys occupied during weekend visits. I will admit to having been an avid player throughout high school. It was a great outlet for a nerdy science fiction loving boy. And though I haven’t thought about it in nearly 30 years, I got sudden senses of nostalgia from all of the D&D related suggestions. I thought of those first few times sitting with my brother and my father (my sister thought we were all crazy) in his apartment trying to figure this stuff out.
But, but, but… Could I really give a name that will stick around for years (hundreds of years? thousands of years? I have no idea) based on a fantasy game that has only been around for thirty years? Would astronomers in 200 years look back on a name like that and think it was a quaint anachronism or just kind of dorky? Maybe. The connections to Orcus are good, even if the mythology is recent.
Tokien related. Many people noted that the word “Orc”, the foot-soldier bad guys from Lord of the Rings, is said to be derived from Orcus (possibly by way of Beowulf) and suggested related names. I should have the same flash backs to nerdy-science-fiction childhood for these suggestions, but I don’t, and I suddenly realized why. Those flashbacks memories seem to keep being overrun by replaced mental images of Elijah Wood and friends running around New Zealand.
There is the same concern about ephemeral popular culture, though these days Orcs are pretty mainstream. But, still, the connection is to the potential origin of the word Orc, as opposed to being to Orcus himself. Somehow, again, that seems not quite right to me.
Silly related. Perhaps the biggest laugh I had when reading these came from someone suggesting “Mindy.” Mindy, of course, was the counterpart to Robin Williams’ Mork. Who was from Ork. The other surprisingly common silly suggestion was “Fiona.” As in, Fiona, bride of Shreck. Shreck, of course, is an Ogre. And then there was – frequently! – “otulP” as in Pluto, backwards. Surprisingly, the more appropriate “norahC’ as in Charon, backwards, rarely showed up.
Un related. People, don’t even start with me. Colbert? Seriously? When people were talking about my discovery of Eris did Stephen Colbert have me on his show? No, he did not. He instead had Neil Tyson. When Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet did Stephen Colbert have me on his show? No, he did not. He instead had Neil Tyson. When Neil Tyson wrote a book about the demotion of Pluto did Stephen Colbert have me on his show? No, he did not. He instead had, well he had Neil Tyson. People, I have this to say: Stephen Colbert is dead to me. And I don’t mean “dead” in a “now-that-he’s-dead-and-in-Hades-hanging-out-with-Orcus-I-can-name-the-satellite-after-him” sort of way, either.
Whale related. Orcus sounds an awful lot like Orcas, as in the “killer whales.” The name Shamu was a shoe-in here, but I liked better the names of the real-life Shamu’s real-life children. Someone even suggested that the name be related to Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Island off of the coast of Seattle. It is a well kept secret that part of the appeal of the original name “Orcus” for this Kuiper belt object was that it sounds like the island. My wife Diane lived on Orcus Island through her high school years. We go back to visit as often as we can. The name was a small present to her. She has, of course, thoroughly forgotten about this by now. But I could indeed revive her memory by naming the satellite after something related. One summer while we were visiting and playing our typical game of “let’s pick up a real estate guide and fantasize about houses we can’t afford” I became enamored of this one house that was on a tiny island just off of Orcas Island. You have to go back and forth to Orcas by motorboat to get your groceries, visit your favorite coffee shop, or walk more than 200 yards at a time. I talked about it all the time and how much I would love to have a house on an island like that. Diane became worried that I might actually be serious. I have, in the past, lived in odd places like sailboats and cabins in the woods with no running water. I might have it in me. I think that just to keep Diane a little on her toes, it would be fun to remind her of this time and name the satellite “Crane Island.” But, really, Orcus is not Orcas. And not even Shamu. So I sadly have to pass on this one.
Finally, we get to the more ancient mythology. As I admitted earlier, my heart was always here, though I was willing to consider these other themes.
Overall, the suggestions of and votes for Greek, Roman, and Etruscan mythological characters exceeded all of the other suggestions by a large amount.
The top contenders were Prosperina (a Latinized version of Persephone, wife of Pluto), Vanth (an Etruscan goddess associated with the dead), Phlegyas (a boatman for the dead), and Cerberus (the three headed dog guarding the fates)
At this point, I believe it best to revert to the analysis offered by readers here.
From Sovay:
  • Vanth and Charun are traditionally paired in Etruscan iconography, so her association with Orcus forms a nice parallel to Charon and Pluto; in keeping with the satellite's unclear origins, Vanth's role is not cut-and-dried (she is generally accepted as a psychopomp, possibly a benevolent counterpart to the demonic Charun) and where Orcus and Charon can be traced into other mythologies, Vanth is attested only in Etruscan; and if she accompanies dead souls from the moment of death to the underworld itself, then of course her face is turned always toward Orcus.
From JohnD
  • I suggest "Cerberus", the many-headed guard-dog of Hades. The name has been used elsewhere in the Solar System and the constellations, but not for a semi-planetary body, so I think it would still be allowed. And Cerberus was, in Virgil's words,

    "Orcus' warder, blood-besmeared,
    Growling o'er gory bones half-cleared
    Down in his gloomy den"

    so a classical connection with Orcus.
From Tim:
  • My suggested name is Prosperina. Sources differ, but as far as I can tell, Orcus and Dis Pater (the origin of ‘Dis’, which of course we see as the capital of hell in the Divine Comedy) were synonyms for the same godProsperina was the Roman name for his wife, and you will know her as Persephone, doomed to live for 4 months in hell and for 8 months in heaven because of her consumption of a single pomegranate seed. I like this because I imagine this little moon captured and dragged out on Orcus’ great elliptical orbit, destined to wander far from the plane of the planets for all eternity, a little icy queen of the void. Gosh, I need to go and have a cup of tea to cheer me up now.
From Matthew:
  • Pluto was god of the underworld in Roman mythology, and Charon ferried souls across the river Acheron in early Greek and Roman mythology. Pluto has his equivalent in Orcus, being used as an alternative name for Pluto, and having separate connections to the underworld. Charon, too, has an equivalent in Phlegyas, ferrying souls across the river Styx. Since the Kuiper belt object Orcus can be considered the anti-Pluto and therefore is named due to this relation, it seems fitting to name the first moon of Orcus in a way that fits the connection between Pluto and its first moon, Charon. This, of course, would lead to the name Phlegyas being chosen for “S/1 90482 (2005)”. In addition, Charon, in mythology, seems to be completely connected with the underworld with no indication that he ever existed apart from it. On the other hand Phlegyas does not enter the underworld until Apollo kills him for burning his temple. If Pluto and Charon formed out of a giant collision, as is believed, then Charon's entire lifetime is linked to Pluto. However, if Orcus captured its moon,which may be the case, then it would have existed before its connection with Orcus. This is even further correlation between the connections in mythology of Pluto to Charon and Orcus to Phlegyas and the objects in our solar system. So, to be true to the connection between named objects in the solar system and mythology, as well as to the connection between Pluto and Charon and Orcus and its first moon, I propose the name "Phlegyas" be given to the object “S/1 90482 (2005)”.
And so finally I have to chose, after all of these good names and great discussions. And so. And so. And so…..
Prosperina has a great connection to Orcus, but she is more strongly associated with Pluto than with Orcus. I like the idea of keeping Orcus and Pluto distinct. Cerberus suffers from the same problem.
I am strongly drawn to Matthew’s description of Phlegyas, in particular the strong link to the mystery of the formation of Orcus’s moon. That’s good. Really good. I was almost about to say OK, let’s do it, but I got stuck. Phlegyas is being punished for burning down Apollo’s temple after Apollo killed his daughter. He now wanders Hades reminding people to respect the gods. Are kidding me? If Apollo ever came down and killed my daughter he would get much worse than just his temple being burnt down. And when I went to Hades I would not talk about respecting the gods. Every time I read his story I just get mad. Maybe putting Phlegyas in space releases him from his punishment in Hades.
And finally Vanth. I will tell you this: Vanth got the most votes. It was never my intention that this become an election, but, if it had been, Vanth would be the winner. The appeal to me – and to everyone who voted for Vanth I would guess – is pretty clear. Vanth is one of the few purely Etruscan deities, and a chthonic one at that. She is a psychopomp. I mention these last two facts mainly because I had no idea what they meant until I looked them up (she is an underworld god who conveys dead souls, is what it means). She likes to hang out with Charun, a name which derives, unsurprisingly, from Charon, which makes a nice parallel. And while she’s associated with the underworld, she is a guide rather than an avenger. She awaits the dead and brings them to their new home.
Vanth doesn’t do nearly a good a job of telling the potential story of the formation of the satellite of Orcus, though. So until yesterday I was still unsure. But yesterday while reading about Vanth and reading about Phlegyas, I stumbled across a picture of very nice fresco at the tomb of Anina. Vanth is waiting for the dead, as she is often depicted. It even appears to me that she is silently crying while she waits. Admittedly, I might be misinterpreting, but still, the tear made me think of my sister, waiting for my father – guiding my father – as he took his last breaths.
In a solar system filled with Apollos (asteroid #1862, discovered in 1932) who might kill your daughter, Zeuses (asteroid #5731, discovered in 1988) who might abduct your daughter (or your son, for that matter), Tantaluses (asteroid #2102, discovered in 1975) who might feed you his son, or Erises (the largerst dwarf planet, discovered in 2005) who might start a world war, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who weeps for the dead? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a guide to light the way?
So it will be Vanth.
The citation submitted to the IAU has to be short and can only hint at the richness of everything that has gone on here. It will read:
S/1 (90482) (2005) Vanth

Discovered 13 Nov 2005 by M.E. Brown and T.-A Suer.

Vanth is a daimon in Etruscan mythology who guides the dead to the underworld. She often appears on tomb paintings and sarcophagi where she is depicted with wings and a torch, and she is frequently shown in the presence of Charun, a guard of the underworld. Name suggested by Sonya Taaffe.
Thanks to everyone for participating. Having gone through all of this, I realize that naming a moon was perhaps a bit too constraining, as the theme was already in place. Next time perhaps we will try to find a name for one of the many many other objects out there that are deserving and for which the field is wide open. As always, stay tuned.