Titania and Oberon
John Herschel was an astronomer just like his dad and upon the discovery of the two moons of Uranus he decided to reach into the fantastical forest that William Shakespeare created in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Herschel plucked from this comedy about fairies the names of the king and queen of the fairies as the ideal choice for the newly discovered heavenly bodies. And so with Titania and Oberon, a wonderful tradition was born that would be followed with each discovery of a new moon traveling around the big blue planet swirling far out in the murky recesses of the solar system.
Ariel, Umbriel, and Belinda
In 1851 astronomer William Lassell discovered two more moons circling around the giant planet with the name that has given rise to countless puns. Lassell handed the job of naming the two new moons back to John Herschel. One may find fault with Herschel for his choice because one of those choices has served to confuse many whose may be more familiar with astronomy than they are with British literature. The name Ariel is most famous as the puckish sprite who is a major character in another Shakespeare play, The Tempest. In fact, both Ariel and Umbriel are characters that are found in Alexander Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock. Another moon was named after another character in that poem, Belinda. Belinda was actually discovered by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
Miranda is, arguably perhaps, the most fascinating of the moons of Uranus because of its unusually bizarre surface that looks as if it has been shattered and is populated by enormous ice cliffs that dwarf Mt. Everest. Miranda was discovered in 1948 by Geral Kuiper and he chose to revert back to John Herschel’s original source for naming the moons of Uranus. Miranda is the daughter of Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the very same play that produces the continuing confusion over the source of Ariel’s name.
…And the Rest of Uranus’ Moons
The tradition of naming the moons of Uranus after literary figures in general–and Shakespearean characters quite specifically–continues today. It sometimes seems as if a new moon of Uranus is discovered every time you turn around: ten moons were found by Voyager 2 in 1986 and another was uncovered ten years later. By the 1990s and early 21st century another eleven moons were added to the mix. The names of these new moons run the gamut of Shakespearean drama and comedy from the darkest tragedies (Cordelia from King Lear and Ophelia from Hamlet) to the lightest of the Bard’s comedies (Rosalind from As You Like It and Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Since most people labor under the delusion that Ariel joins Miranda as being a moon of Uranus that was inspired by The Tempest, it perhaps was only to be expected that Shakepear’s tale of shipwrecked victims and magic should have given rise to the most names for the moons of Uranus. No less than nine moons are named after characters from The Tempest; ten if you want to give the play credit for Ariel.
All images courtesy of NASA and Wikimedia Commons.