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Pluto-Bound Science Instrument Renamed for Girl Who Named Ninth Planet
06.30.2006

The student-built science instrument on the New Horizons mission to Pluto has been renamed to honor one of astronomy's most famous students - the "little girl" who named the ninth planet more than 75 years ago.

The Student Dust Counter - the first science instrument on a NASA planetary mission to be designed, built and operated by students - will now be known as the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, or "Venetia" for short. The tag honors Venetia Burney Phair who at age 11 offered the name "Pluto" for the newly discovered ninth planet in 1930.

Asteriod
Venetia Burney at age 11, when she suggested the name "Pluto" for the newly discovered ninth planet in 1930.
Credit: Venetia Burney Phair (via the BBC)

"I feel quite astonished, and to have an instrument named after me is an honor," says Venetia Burney Phair, now 87 and living in Epsom, England. "I never dreamt when I was 11, that after all these years, people would still be thinking about this and even sending a probe to Pluto. It's remarkable."

"It's fitting that we name an instrument built by students after Mrs. Phair, who was just a grade-school student herself in England when she made her historic suggestion of a name for Pluto," said Dr. Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, CO. "It's also a great honor to recognize Mrs. Phair for her historic, early role in the saga of the ninth planet."

The instrument, designed, built and currently operated by students and faculty advisors at the University of Colorado, Boulder, begins full science operations in July after a series of post-launch tests and checkouts. As a mission Education and Public Outreach project, "Venetia" is counting and measuring dust particle impacts on New Horizons along the spacecraft's entire trajectory to produce information on their production, transport and loss and, by inference, the population of comets and other distant colliding bodies that are too small to detect with telescopes. The dust counter could also be used to search for dust in the Pluto system; such dust might be generated by collisions of tiny impactors on Pluto and its moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra.

The device combines two major elements: an 18-by-12-inch detector mounted on the outside of the spacecraft, and an electronics box inside the craft that determines the mass and speed of the particles that hit the detector. Because no dust detector has ever flown beyond 18 astronomical units from the Sun (nearly 1.7 billion miles, about the distance from Uranus to the Sun), Venetia's data will give scientists unprecedented measurements of the size and spatial distribution of dust in the outer solar system.

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The assembled Student Dust Counter instrument prior to installation on the New Horizons spacecraft in August 2004.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

With faculty support, University of Colorado students will also distribute and archive data from the instrument and lead a comprehensive education and outreach effort to bring their results and experiences to classrooms of all grades over the next two decades.

For more information on the instrument, visit http://lasp.colorado.edu/sdc/

 

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