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Emily LakdawallaJune 19, 2008

Women's names in the solar system

A while back I wrote about the way that women's names have been assigned to maps throughout the solar system. Because features on Venus may only be named for women, factual and fictional, there are precious few women's names to be found on features elsewhere in the solar system. That entry begged yet another question: just how many features are named for women? I don't yet have the answer for the entire solar system but I now have in hand the answer to the following question: how many of the features on Mercury and Mars that can be named for historical figures (as opposed to fictional or mythological figures) have been named for women? The answer: 16. This answer was obtained with the help of a high school sophomore who volunteered her time to pore through the long lists of Mercurian and Martian craters and Google the 120 or so gender-inspecific names to discover the few females. Thanks, Melanie!

There is a grand total of three craters on Mars named for women (the links will take you to a map and image, from Google Mars):

There is one other female-named crater in the Mars system, Stickney, on Phobos, named for Angeline Stickney, wife of American astronomer Asaph Hall. Only those Martian craters that are 60 kilometers in diameter and larger get names for "deceased scientists who have contributed to the study of Mars, or writers and others who have contributed to the lore of Mars." The main reason, therefore, that there are so few craters on Mars named for women is because, until relatively recently, there have been few women permitted to research or write about Mars. The vast majority of female Mars researchers or authors are not yet dead. But all of the 60-kilometer-and-larger craters on Mars have been discovered, and many of them have been named; when the first generation of planetary scientists to contain large numbers of women finally begins to pass on, there will, in all possibility, be few craters on Mars left to name after them. It's a problem. Hopefully Mars researchers who are currently considering suggesting that craters be named will try to add a few more women's names into the mix.

There are now 12 craters on Mercury named for women. Sorry, there's no Google Mercury yet; that'll be one thing that MESSENGER may facilitate, once the next flyby allows them to fill in pretty much all of the previously un-imaged portions of Mercury. Two facts conspire to allow Mercury to have many more female-named craters than Mars does. First of all, the naming criterion for Mercurian craters is "Deceased artists, musicians, painters, and authors who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to their field and have been recognized as art historically significant figures for more than 50 years." Although there have been few female scientists prior to the 20th century, women have historically been permitted to participate in the arts, so there are many more names to choose from. Second of all, mapping of Mercury is still relatively incomplete, and the naming is now proceeding at a time when the mappers consider diversity of both gender and cultural origin to be a priority. The Mercurian craters are:

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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Emily Lakdwalla
The Planetary Fund

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