Friday, November 18, 2011

Mars moons Deimos and Phobos named after the Greek god of fear and his twin-brother

Our neighbor planet Mars has two small moons. They were discovered in 1877 by the American astronomer Asaph Hall using the giant 26-inch refractor of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D. C. [1,2]. The moons were named Deimos and Phobos: Deimos after the Greek god of fear, dread and terror; Phobos after Deimos' twin-brother, who is associated with panic fear, flight and battlefield rout [3]. Both are sons of the Greek god of war, Ares, namesake of their parent planet. Summa summarum, a scary family!

Who came up with the names? According to a NASA site, discoverer Asaph Hall himself named the Mars satellites based on Homer's Illiad. But other sources indicate that the names were suggested by Henry Madan, a science master of Eaton [4,5]. Interestingly, Henry was the brother of  Falconer Madan, whose granddaughter Venetia Burney suggested the name Pluto for an object, which at that time was referred to as Planet X.  Neil deGrasse Tyson remarks that naming of cosmic objects was already in Venetia's bloodline [5]. Apparently, you need to grow up in a family fluent in mythology and observant of the latest planet and moon detections.

Keywords: physics, astronomy, planetary science, solar system, discovery, history, Greek mythology, nomenclature

References and more to explore
[1] NASA >  Exploration > Under the Moons of Mars (by Steven J. Dick):
[2] Ulf von Rauchhaupt: Der Neunte Kontinent - Die wissenschaftliche Eroberung des Mars. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2009; page 26.
[3] Theoi Greek Mythology >Deimos & Phobos:
[4] Planet Facts > Phobos and Deimos - Moons of
[5] Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Pluto Files. W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2009; page 10.

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