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The names of places and geographic features (and even buildings) on Earth is an interesting topic; sometimes they are later changed after concerns are raised. And of course there is the deliberate gamesmanship of changing the names of sections of streets where another country's embassy sits to make their mailing address awkward or unappealing to the embassy's country.

But this question is strictly about off-world names.

Question: Have there been any names of geographic features on moons or planets other than Earth that were ever later found to be controversial or provocative? Have any of them ever been subsequently changed?

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    $\begingroup$ Astronomy stack? $\endgroup$ Jun 19 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble it's a toss-up but honestly I think that folks there are going to be less aware of the history of naming craters from photos taken by NASA spacecraft, which seems to be the bulk of the names from which answers here will come from. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 19 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble let's give it a few weeks or so here, and if nothing pops up I'll reconsider moving it there or ask to have it migrated. If the question were about naming asteroids, things that would be in the minor planet data center, or exoplanets, I'd definitely go to Astronomy SE first. But craters are associated with landing sites and space folks pore over those ad infinitum, so I think questions specifically about craters and such are better asked here. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 19 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble: Probably "half a dozen of one & six of the other". The International Astronomical Union is the organization that names celestial features, but until the New Horizons probe flew past Pluto Earth based observations could only provide a fuzzy image of Pluto. The IAU sometimes has to rely on Space Exploration data to be able to name features on celestial bodies. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Jun 19 at 4:45
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In 2020, it was reported that NASA would no longer using "offensive" nicknames for celestial bodies.

Under the new rules, the “Eskimo Nebula,” discovered in 1787 by William Hershel, will only be referred to as NGC 2392.

The so-called “Siamese Twins Galaxy” will likewise be known only as NGC 4567 and NGC 4568.

NASA also renamed Ultima Thule to Arrokoth because of Nazi connections.

Other than that, during the early days of space exploration when photographic resolutions were poor some features were misnamed, such as the Soviet Mountains on the far side of the Moon. They turned out to be a bright linear streak that was a ray from the Giordano Bruno Crater.

With the flight of the Luna 3 probe in 1959, the Soviet Union was the first nation to image the far side of the Moon. To the surprise of most, large regions of maria (so prominent on the near side) were mostly missing from the far side. Although the first images were of very low quality, the Soviets couldn’t resist the urge to name newly discovered features for a variety of Russian heroes and place names, such as Tsiolkovsky and the Sea of Moscow. Some new “features” were misidentified because of the low resolution – the name “Soviet Mountains” (no longer used) was given to a bright linear streak across the far side globe (a feature that turned out to be a long ray from the fresh crater Giordano Bruno and not a mountain range).

Additionally, since most celestial objects tend to have either an Arabic, Latin or Greek name, other cultures have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union. Some 86 new names have been adopted, taken from Australian Aboriginal, Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, Polynesian, and South African cultures.


Edit 20-June 2021

In 2002, The International Astronomy Union unanimously voted to drop the designation of crater Eppinger from the Moon.

An inquiry opened with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Planetary Nomenclature section regarding the suitability of having a crater on the Moon named to honor Dr. Hans Eppinger, Jr., an accused Nazi war criminal, has resulted in the removal of the designation.

Upon the removal of the Eppinger designation, the IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature reinstated the crater’s original listing as Euclides D

On some older maps of the Moon, Craters,

Kästner B, R, and S are called Defoe, Shekhov, and Cellini on some older maps, but these names were not approved by the IAU.

In 2020, it was reported the IAU has also recommended that the Lenard and Stark craters on the far side of the Moon should be quickly renamed. The two craters are named after Nazi scientists. The pair were largely responsible for the idea that there was an “Aryan physics”. They also actively embraced Nazi policies during the 1930s.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow, thank you for the thorough answer! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 19 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ It seems that von Braun got a pass in this case. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 19 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ While researching this topic I was struck by the number of lunar craters named after Jesuit scientists, dating back to the 16th Century. There are 35 now, about 5 were renamed. Some asteroids & comets have also been named after them. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Jun 20 at 9:55
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    $\begingroup$ and previously you thought the internet was full cats? There are Tom Lehrer videos waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting, as well. Oh no! What have started. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Jun 20 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ One of the prescient things about the von Braun video, despite being recorded in the mid 1960s, is the ended "... in German & English I know how to count down, but I'm learning Chinese ..." $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Jun 20 at 11:26

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