International Astronomical Union Names Lunar Crater After Arctic Explorer Matthew Henson
September 20, 2021
The International Astronomical Union has named a lunar crater—the “Henson Crater”— after Dr. Matthew Alexander Henson, an extraordinary explorer who journeyed to Earth’s North Pole. He led several expeditions to the Arctic and was awarded a medal by the U.S. Navy in 1945 for his Arctic exploration. In 1996, the U.S. Navy commissioned a ship called USNS Henson. Shortly before his death in 1955, he received two honorary degrees from Howard University and Morgan State University.
Dr. Henson’s work was recognized posthumously with a United States postage stamp released in 1986, the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal in 2000, and a Greenland postage stamp released in 2009. He was the first Black explorer to receive such accolades.
A new opportunity to recognize Henson’s accomplishments emerged from geologic mapping of the Moon’s south pole by a team at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) of Universities Space Research Association (USRA). The LPI hosts an Exploration Science program for visiting graduate students that is sponsored by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. The Exploration Science program and the mapping team, led by USRA’s Dr. David Kring at LPI, was tasked to map two potential Artemis landing sites in NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development. Jordan Bretzfelder (University of California, Los Angeles), Indujaa Ganesh (University of Arizona), Nandita Kumari (Stony Brook University), and Antonio Lang (University of Buffalo), who comprised the team, mapped the two sites.
Between the two sites being mapped by the team was a large unnamed impact crater. The crater had spewed debris where astronauts may tread and contains a shadowed crater floor that may host ice that astronauts can use for water, radiation shielding, and propellant. “For future scientific discussions and mission planning, the crater needed a name,” stated Kring.
Jordan Bretzfelder found that the name “Henson” had not yet been applied to a lunar feature, so she and Kring submitted it to the International Astronomical Union’s Task Group for Lunar Nomenclature for consideration.
“Creating an inclusive community and achieving equity in the sciences begins by recognizing the contributions of people from all backgrounds,” said Bretzfelder. “It felt like a disservice that Henson hasn’t been appropriately recognized for his contributions to polar science, and I’m proud to be a part of rectifying that.”
Henson was at the front lines of almost a dozen Arctic expeditions organized by Robert Peary over 18 years, including the one that ultimately reached the North Pole. He wrote a book about those exploits and toured the country speaking about them. Dr. Henson and his wife are buried in Arlington National Cemetery with appropriate honors.
Henson Crater’s location at the south pole of the Moon is in the same region the Artemis program aims to land the next generation of lunar explorers, who will be selected from NASA’s increasingly diverse astronaut pool. A dozen astronauts have already been identified for the Artemis Team.
“It is important to honor the accomplishments of past explorers and to celebrate the diverse talents that will be needed to successfully explore the Moon in the future,” said Kring.