No matter what the UN's 1967 Outer Space Treaty says to the contrary, we've long been in the business of selling pieces of the universe. You can buy a moon plot, an asteroid, or a star, which means you can attach a name to a non-terrestrial place for a fee and someone will send you a fake deed to verify the transaction.
The newest name-it-and-claim-it-in-space game, a Uwingu/Mars One partnership, invites the public to participate in naming the 500,000 unnamed craters on Mars. Five dollars gets you a small crater; the big bucks buy you more. Uwingu will send you a web link and a certificate for each crater purchased. Some portion of the money raised will support scientific ventures; the rest will pay the bills.
The Uwingu website has an interactive map with many craters already claimed. Some of the names: "Vampkitty Bytes," "Drew & Jakes's Crater," "Jesus," "Honeybuzz," "Walter the Golden Pony Crater," "Spam Unit," "Pibble and Bunny's Eternal Love," "Magic Unicorn Crater," and "Sarah's Large Hole in the Ground."
The International Astronomical Union (IAU), the organization in charge of actual naming, will not recognize these names as official. Who would?
Past IAU designations include craters named for famous scientists Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Ptolemy, and for science-fiction notables Isaac Asimov, Orson Welles and Gene Roddenberry. Some craters are named for individuals with actual Mars bragging rights: Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who created the first detailed maps of Mars; Soviet spacecraft designer Sergei Korolev, who worked on a Mars mission plan soon after he sent Sputnik I into Earth orbit; Percival Lowell, devotee of all things Mars and Martian; Carl Sagan, who worked on the Mars Mariner missions before hosting Cosmos; and observer Charles Capen, who predicted the planet-enveloping dust storm that nearly derailed the Mariner 9 mission in 1971. In a rare show of gender equity, one crater each is named for early-20th-century French husband-and-wife astronomers and Mars enthusiasts Camille Flammarion and Gabrielle Renaudot Flammarion.
Charles "Chick" Capen and the Flammarions: Mars crater-worthy!
You can see where I'm going with this. Mars has a rich history of maps and a tradition for the names of features on those maps. I just don't see how "Triangle Monkey Butt" and "Big Dazzas Martian Love Nest" will add anything significant to the picture.
The other part of the deal -- that Mars One will transport this crowd-sourced map and use it on Mars -- is the part that disturbs me more:
Mars One will carry a digital copy of the resulting Mars Map on board its 2018 unmanned Mars Lander and will use the Uwingu crater names ... in the exploration and hoped for settlement of Mars.
In previous extraterrestrial-real-estate deals, the naming mattered less, because no one was going to visit or inhabit the place you'd named. Your little purchased piece of the universe remained private and fanciful and was designed never to evolve beyond the conceptual idea it represented. Going out in your backyard, pointing into the night sky and saying, "That point of light right there? I own it," affected no one but you and your immediate circle.
Mars One is different: It's a high-profile, public venture. Everyone will follow the progress of the first Mars astronauts online and on television, just as many of us followed the progress of the manned Moon missions. But what if the Eagle had landed not in the Sea of Tranquility but in Daniel's Pit of Awesome? If the intent is to use this crowd-sourced map on site, that's like asking the first Mars colonists to risk life and limb to get there only to be told that they're expected to live in Rauscher's Cat Condo, right next to Pookie's Martian Mound, and to stop in at the Daily Pooper whenever they feel the urge.
One of the stated goals of the Uwingu/Mars One partnership is to engage the public in Mars exploration. Getting the public excited about space exploration has never been a problem, but getting them involved in Mars exploration via interactive pay-to-play ventures edges dangerously close to gaming the idea of Mars: having fun with it now but paying for it in terms of lost prestige and confidence later, when the whole world is paying close attention, lives are at stake, and viewers are too busy holding their collective breath to laugh out loud at the cuteness of it all.