Capt. Kirk's name 'Vulcan' for Pluto moon wins vote

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — "Star Trek" fans, rejoice.

An online vote to name Pluto's two newest, itty-bitty moons is over. And No. 1 is Vulcan, a name suggested by actor William Shatner, who played Capt. Kirk in the original "Star Trek" TV series.

Vulcan snared more than a third of the more than 450,000 votes cast during the two-week contest, which ended Monday. In second place with nearly 100,000 votes was Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of the underworld.

Vulcan, the Roman god of lava and smoke, was Pluto's nephew. Vulcan was also the home planet of the pointy-eared humanoids in the "Star Trek" shows. Think Mr. Spock.

"174,062 votes and Vulcan came out on top of the voting for the naming of Pluto's moons. Thank you to all who voted!" Shatner tweeted once the tally was complete.

Actor Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed the reason- and logic-based Spock, emailed to The Associated Press: "If my people were emotional they would say they are pleased."

Don't assume Vulcan and Cerberus are shoo-ins, though, for the two tiny moons the Hubble Space Telescope helped discover in the past two years.

The contest was conducted by SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., the research base for the primary moon hunter. The 10 astronomers who made the discoveries will take the voting results into account, as they come up with what they consider to be the two best names.

The International Astronomical Union has the final say, and it could be a month or two before an edict is forthcoming. Now called P4 and P5, the moons are 15 to 20 miles across.

The leader of the teams that discovered the mini-moons, Mark Showalter, said Monday he is leaning toward the popular vote.

But he pointed out that asteroids thought to orbit close to the sun are called vulcanoids, which could be confusing if a moon of Pluto were named Vulcan. Vulcan, in fact, was the name given in the 19th century to a possible planet believed to orbit even closer to the sun than Mercury; no such planet was ever found. What's more, Showalter said, Vulcan is associated with lava and volcanoes, while Pluto is anything but hot.

As for Cerberus, an asteroid already bears that name, so maybe the Greek version, Kerberos, would suffice, said Showalter, a senior research scientist at SETI's Carl Sagan Center.

Styx, the river to the underworld, was No. 3 with nearly 88,000 votes.

Pluto's three bigger moons are Charon, Nix and Hydra.

Potential names had to come from Greek or Roman mythology, and deal with the underworld. Twenty-one choices were available at Pluto Rocks when voting ended, nine of them write-ins suggested by the public, including Shatner's Vulcan.

Shatner's second choice, Romulus, did not make the cut; an asteroid already has a moon by that name -- along with a moon named Remus.

And forget the Disney connection.

"We love Mickey, Minnie and Goofy, too," Showalter informed voters a few days into the voting. "However, these are not valid names for astronomical objects. Sorry."

Altogether, 30,000 write-in candidate names poured in.

Showalter said he will keep the list handy as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto in 2015. It will be the first robotic flyby of the planetoid, or dwarf planet near the outer fringes of the solar system, and will undoubtedly find more moons.

"I have learned not to underestimate Pluto," Showalter wrote on the website. With so many good names available, "Pluto needs more moons!"