May 8, 2009
New Horizons Team Remembers Venetia Phair, the 'Girl Who Named Pluto'

The author (center) goes over the New Horizons model with Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum staff.

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern presents a plaque to Venetia Burney Phair in December 2006, commemorating the name “Venetia” for the New Horizons Student Dust Counter. Read Stern’s account of their meeting at the end of this “PI Perspective” entry. Click on image to enlarge.

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.”

Plaque Commemorating the Venetia Burney SDC:
"New Horizons, the first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, is proud to announce that the student instrument aboard our spacecraft is hereby named "The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter" in honor of Mrs. Venetia Burney Phair, who at age of eleven nominated the name Pluto for our solar system's ninth planet. May "Venetia" inspire a new generation of students to explore our solar system, to make discoveries which challenge the imagination, and to pursue learning all through their lives."


Read about the instrument renaming and see photos of the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter

The Guardian: Venetia Phair, who named Pluto, dies at 90

The Telegraph: Venetia Phair