Lunar Crater Named After African-American Arctic Explorer Dr Matthew Henson

Henson Crater is located in the Moon's south pole region. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University/United States Library of Congress/ IFLScience

The International Astronomical Union has announced it will be naming a previously unnamed impact crater on the Moon after Dr Matthew Alexander Henson, an African-American Arctic explorer believed to be the first person to have reached the North Pole in 1909, a feat he achieved in the company of Robert Peary and four Inuit hunters.

Henson's many accomplishments, including 12 Arctic expeditions, were honored during his lifetime and posthumously, although not enough to make him a household name. Henson was an experienced explorer and spent 18 years with Peary exploring the Arctic. Though there is evidence he was the first person to "stand on top of the world", due to being Black, his role was diminished by some and for a long time full credit went to Peary. Now, he has something eluding many other explorers: his name placed among the stars. 

Henson Crater is located in the Moon's south pole, between Sverdrup and de Gerlache craters, in the region the Artemis program aims to land the next generation of lunar explorers. 

The proposal was put forward by Jordan Bretzfelder, a visiting graduate researcher from the Lunar and Planetary Institute's Exploration Science program. In the program, they are mapping the Moon’s south pole with the goal to find two potential locations where Artemis astronauts might land when NASA goes back to the Moon in a few years.

Between the two locations, they found this impact crater. Its floor is shadowed and might contain ice that future astronauts might use for water, radiation shielding, and propellent. It was too important a feature to stay unnamed. Bretzfelder found that Henson had not been celebrated with a lunar name yet, and so together with Dr David Kring put forward the proposal to the International Astronomical Union’s Task Group for Lunar Nomenclature.

“Creating an inclusive community and achieving equity in the sciences begins by recognizing the contributions of people from all backgrounds,” Bretzfelder said in a statement. “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.”

“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,” added Dr Kring.

That Peary and Henson's expedition reached the geographical North Pole in April 1909 is far from universally agreed. Evidence for and against the achievement is compelling. According to their logs, the expedition actually overshot the Pole by several miles and had to circle back. It was here Henson realized his footprints were closest and he was the first to reach it. Of course, there is a good chance they weren't the first people to reach the North Pole at all, as the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic explored the area for hundreds of years. 

If Henson’s footprint were the first at the spot or not, his legacy exploring Earth's most challenging terrains is not in question. Now that legacy is honored beyond Earth.   

 
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