14 May 2009
(Source: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)
The team guiding the first mission to Pluto is fondly remembering Venetia Burney Phair, the "little girl" who named the ninth planet when it was discovered nearly 80 years ago. Mrs. Phair died April 30 at her home in Epsom, England, at age 90.
"Venetia's interest and success in naming Pluto as a schoolgirl caught the attention of the world and earned her a place in the history of planetary astronomy that lives on," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
In June 2006, the New Horizons team renamed the spacecraft's Student Dust Counter instrument in her honor, calling it the "Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter" (VBSDC, or just "Venetia" for short). Six months later, in a small ceremony in Mrs. Phair's home, Stern and SDC Principal Investigator Mihaly Horanyi presented her with a plaque, certificate and spacecraft model to commemorate the renaming. "She was a thoroughly intelligent, likable and endearing woman," Stern says. "The entire New Horizons team is saddened by her passing."
The New Horizons dust counter is the first the first science instrument on a NASA planetary mission to be designed, built and operated by students, and by late next year it will be operating farther out in the solar system than any dust measurement instrument in history. Stern and the SDC team members thought it fitting to name instrument built by students after Mrs. Phair, who was just an 11-year-old student herself when she made her historic suggestion of a name for Pluto in 1930.
"Her death deeply saddens the former and current crew of the VBSDC instrument," says Horanyi, who, like the dust counter student team, is from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "Her contribution will be lasting, not only by naming Pluto, but also by giving an example to young people of the value of intellectual curiosity and the rewards of a lifelong interest in science and discovery."