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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Women's names in the solar system

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

19-06-2008 13:42 CDT


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):

  • 64-kilometer Renaudot, named for 20th century French astronomer Gabrielle Renaudot;
  • 93-kilometer Sytinskaya, named for 20th century Soviet astronomer Nadezhda Nikolaevna Sytinskaya; and
  • 124-kilometer Sklodowska, named for the Nobel-prize winning Polish-born French chemist Marie Sklodowska, also known as Marie Curie.
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:

  • 108-kilometer Andal, named for a 10th century Tamil (South Indian) writer;
  • 61-kilometer Li Ch'ing-Chao, named for a 12th century Chinese poet;
  • 119-kilometer Ts'ai Wen-Chi, named for a 2nd century Han dynasty composer;
  • 52-kilometer Nampeyo, named for a 20th century Hopi (Native American) potter;
  • 37-kilometer Cunningham, named for 20th century American photographer Imogen Cunningham;
  • 130-kilometer Murasaki, named for 11th century Japanese novelist and poet Shikibu Murasaki;
  • 113-kilometer Sei, named for 11th century Japanese diarist and poet Shonagun Sei;
  • 111-kilometer Khansa, named for 7th century Arab poet Al-Khansa;
  • 60-kilometer Brontë, named for all four of the talented 19th century Brontë sisters, English novelists Charlotte, Emily, and Anne and author and painter Branwell (which seems to me a waste of Brontës; they could at least have put one each on Mercury and Venus);
  • 110-kilometer Mistral, named for 20th century Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral;
  • 93-kilometer Sor Juana, named for 17th century Mexican writer Ines de la Cruz Sor Juana; and
  • 220-kilometer Sveinsdóttir, named for 20th century Icelandic painter and textile artist Júlíana Sveinsdóttir.

See other posts from June 2008


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