March 8, 2021Pluto crater named for female engineer who helped bring the planet into focus

Lisa Hardaway led development of New Horizons' color "eyes" on Pluto system.

Lisa Hardaway (Credit: Ball Aerospace)

When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft came to within 7,800 miles (12,550 kilometers) of Pluto in July 2015, aerospace engineer Lisa Hardaway saw the fruits of more than a decade of her labor come into sharp focus. In a few brief seconds, the Ralph imager and spectrometer, a scientific instrument onboard the spacecraft, collected color images and compositional maps that would soon ripple around the globe, inspiring awe and fascination of the farthest body then explored by humankind.

Sadly, Hardaway passed away almost two years after those iconic moments, in January 2017, at the age of 50.

"Lisa was simultaneously an amazing engineering and management talent and a close colleague," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "Her dedication under schedule and cost constraints and serious engineering challenges helped give us our first look at Pluto, its moons, and the first explored Kuiper Belt object, Arrokoth. It is only fitting that one of Pluto's craters be named in Lisa's honor. So that's what we did. We nominated a crater on Pluto to be named in her honor, and that nomination has been accepted—the crater name is now official."

Hardaway crater sits on the edge of the western rim of Pluto's gigantic Burney crater. Hardaway is the larger of a double-crater and has a dark surface "that reminds one of the mysteries Lisa helped unlock," Stern added.

As its deputy project manager, Hardaway co-led the development of the Ralph instrument, one of seven scientific payloads flying aboard the spacecraft. Ralph contains four color cameras, two black and white cameras, and a spectrometer called the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array, or LEISA — affectionately pronounced "Lisa," also in honor of Hardaway. Among other things, Ralph provided pioneering color images and other kinds of maps of Pluto and its surface features that gave insights to the planet's structure, composition, and temperature.

In addition to her role as one of the deputy program manager of the Ralph instrument, Hardaway worked for 22 years at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, where Ralph was built. There she supported the Hubble Space Telescope and the Deep Impact missions. She also served as member and chair of the Smead Aerospace External Advisory Board and remained active with her alma mater, the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder). CU Boulder awarded Hardaway with the Engineer of Distinction Award posthumously in 2018. She also received accolades for her work from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Women in Aerospace, and the asteroid 161699 Lisahardaway was named in her honor.

"It's wonderful to see Lisa being honored in this way," said Makenzie Lystrup, vice president and general manager, Civil Space, Ball Aerospace. "It is a testament to the commitment she demonstrated every day to the New Horizons mission and the important science it has produced."

"We made so many memories together," said New Horizons deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin, also of SwRI Boulder, who completed bachelor's and master's degrees alongside Hardaway. "We learned together, travelled through Europe together, and culminated this great friendship with the most amazing journey through the solar system, on the New Horizons mission. As so many of us feel, it was an incredible honor to work on this mission — and so it was to work beside Lisa."

Three and a half years after the Pluto flyby, Ralph went on also to capture some the first images of Arrokoth, a contact binary in the Kuiper Belt, on Jan. 1, 2019, almost 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth.

Hardaway crater – named after Lisa Hardaway -- sits on the western rim of Pluto's gigantic Burney crater. Hardaway is the larger of a double crater and has a dark surface that reminds one of the mysteries Lisa Hardaway helped to unlock as a member of the New Horizons mission team. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)