Question: What could possibly put the National Organization for Women and the International Astronomical Union at loggerheads?
Answer: Naming the craters, valley and mountains on Venus.
It all began 17 months ago, when a Pioneer spacecraft flew into orbit around Venus for the first time. Its radar antenna began mapping the cloud-covered planet, revealing features never seen before. This led the International Astronomical Union to announce that it would name the features after the goddesses of mythology.
"We immediately got letters, telephone calls and telegrams from NOW and three or four other women's groups," said Harold Masursky, a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and a leader of the IAU's working group on planetary nomenclature. "They all said ours was a typical male response, naming features on another planet, even Venus, after myths instead of real women."
A compromise was struck. Masursky said at a news conference yesterday that the IAY decided to name some of the largest features on Venus after real women.
While it is true that the largest volcanoes are now called Diana, Artemis and Aphrodite, it also is true that some of the largest craters are named Sappho, Colette, Secagawea and Lise Maitner.
Sappho of Lesbos was a Greek lyric poet, Colette a French novelist, Sacagawa the Blackfoot Indian who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Maitner a Nobel prize winner in physics.
Still, the IAU and NOW are at odds over naming a large crater on the zero longitude line on Venus. The IAU decided to call it Eve. NOW protested, because Eve was not a real woman.
"But this was the point of origin on Venus and so the name "Eve" stuck," Masursky said. "That's the deal."
The fight over the names on Venus hasn't stopped, but the women appear to be winning. At its annual meeting next week in Budapest the IAU will consider names for other craters, canyons and mountains on Venus -- and few goddesses need apply, Masursky said 30 names will be submitted, most of them the names of actual women.
"There are two major mountains coming up for names," Masursky said, "and if I had to guess right now I'd say [pioneer aviator] Amelia Earhart and [English nurse] Florence Nightingale would win hands down. They're the two most popular names suggested to us."
Almost obscured in the controversy over the names are the dimensions of the features on Venus. Pioneer revealed a huge plateau four miles high that is half the size of Africa. Mountains higher then the 29,029-foot Mt. Everest stand at either end of this plateau.
"The highest mountains are all volcanic," Masursky said. "Based on crater counts, some of these volcanoes appear to be no older than 100 million years and some may still be active today."
Masursky said there appear to be so many volcanic features on Venus that it may place as the third most volcanic body in the solar system, behind the moon of Jupiter called Io and the earth.
"There are signs of intense volcanic activity on Venus," Masursky said. "There seems to be a worldwide volcanic pattern on the planet."
Pioneer also discovered rift valleys on Venus as large as any on earth. One stretches for 3,000 miles, appearing like one of the trenches on the floor of the earth's oceans that has spread wider with time.