They are literally worlds apart. A hi-tech Nasa spaceprobe racing to Pluto and a retired schoolmistress enjoying her garden in leafy Epsom, Surrey. But 87-year-old Venetia Phair has just had an important experiment on the US space agency’s New Horizons mission renamed in her honour.
The reason is that it was Venetia, as a girl aged 11, who dreamed up the name for the planet that the probe is travelling to visit 75 years ago. Venetia Burney, as she then was, pictured right, suggested the ninth planet be called Pluto shortly after its discovery by American Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. She is the only living person who has named one of our planets.
Now space scientists have renamed after her an experiment designed, built and operated by American students. The device, which detects impacts by minute meteorites on the journey, is now called the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter – or Venetia for short.
The human Venetia was amazed to hear of the accolade paid to her when told at her cottage in Surrey, south-west of London. She said: “It was very kind of them to name it after me. I feel quite astonished. It is an honour.” She added: “I never dreamed, 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.”
New Horizons’s principal investigator, Dr Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Colorado, said: “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. “It’s also a great honour to recognise Mrs Phair for her historic, early role in the saga of the ninth planet.”
Venetia was living in Oxford with her grandfather Falconer Madan on March 14, 1930, when she learned of Pluto’s discovery. Mr Madan, a retired librarian at the Bodleian Library, read an article about it to her at the breakfast table. He told her that it had not yet been named.
Venetia, who was interested in mythology and astronomy, suggested Pluto and her grandfather was so impressed that he went to tell a friend, astronomy Professor Herbert Hall Turner, at the University of Oxford. When the professor heard Venetia’s suggestion, he sent a telegram to the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, where discoverer Tombaugh worked. Six weeks later, the name Pluto was officially announced and Mr Madan rewarded his granddaughter with a prize of five pounds.
The £400 million piano-sized New Horizons probe was the fastest launch ever when it blasted off in January. It has already passed the orbit of Mars but will not reach Pluto until July 2015.