Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:
As a lifelong Star Trek fanatic, I’ve known the name Utopia Planitia for almost as far back as I can remember. It is (or rather, will be) the site of a prominent human colony on Mars, and by the 24th Century it will be the location of one of Starfleet’s most important shipyards. The U.S.S. Enterprise-D, the U.S.S. Defiant, and the U.S.S. Voyager will all be built there. But where did the name Utopia Planitia come from?
In the 1870’s and 1880’s, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli drew what were, at the time, the most accurate and detailed maps of Mars ever produced. But Schiaparelli had a problem. He had trouble matching the pre-established names from older Mars maps to his new map. The old maps were, to put it bluntly, wrong. The new map looked so different that Schiaparelli had to throw out all the old geographic names (goodbye, Kepler-land and Cassini-land!) and make up new ones.
For inspiration, Schiaparelli turned to the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, and other classical sources. That included several names for “paradise,” like Eden, Arcadia, and Utopia. Clicking the image below will take you to a NASA history page, where you can take a closer look at one of Schiaparelli’s maps (I believe it’s his original map from 1877, but I’m not 100% sure). Bear in mind that this map was drawn based on what Schiaparelli saw through his telescope, and it was intended for use by other telescope observers of his time, so north and south are flipped around.
At about 260° longitude and 50° north latitude, you’ll find a small, triangular shape marked Utopia.
In Greek, the literal meaning of Utopia is “no place,” but the word has come to mean paradise or fantasy-land… a place so idealistically perfect that “no place” like it could exist in reality. And so Utopia Planitia means “the plains of paradise” or “the plains of fantasy.” Thematically speaking, I can’t think of a better place for all those wonderful ships from Star Trek—and the idealistic vision of the future those ships are supposed to represent—to be constructed.