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Pluto Was Named by an 11-Year-Old Girl

BBC/NASA
BBC/NASA

On March 14, 1930, 11-year-old Venetia Burney and her family were eating breakfast at their home in Oxford, England, discussing the biggest news of the day: The discovery of a new planet. Venetia's grandfather, Falconer Madan, retired head Librarian of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, read to her from page 14 of The London Times:

NEW PLANET: DISCOVERY BY LOWELL OBSERVATORY
Professor Harlow Shapley, Director of the Harvard Observatory, announced today that the Lowell Observatory at Flag-staff, Arizona, had discovered a ninth major planet. The planet, which has not yet been named, is beyond Neptune. It is probably larger than the Earth, but smaller than Uranus.

The discovery confirms the belief of the late Dr. Percival Lowell that such a planet existed and was in fact the result of a systematic search of several years in support of Dr. Lowell’s belief. Professor Shapley calls the discovery the most important since the discovery of Neptune in 1846.

Venetia was well familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, and further had recently been acquainted with the planets and their relative distances from the Sun during a nature-walk lesson at school. As the family discussed what the new planet should be named, she said, “I think Pluto would be a good name for it.” Pluto is the god of the underworld, who could make himself invisible and dwelt in a place that sunlight didn’t reach. It seemed a fitting name for a dark, remote planet.

Her grandfather immediately suggested the name to a friend of his, Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at the University of Oxford, who was attending a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in London at the time. There was already a heated debate in Flagstaff and at the RAS meeting about what to call the new planet, but nobody involved had thought of Pluto.

“I think PLUTO excellent!!" Turner wrote back. "We did not manage to think of anything so good at the RAS yesterday. The only at all meritorious suggestion was Kronos, but that won’t do alongside Saturn.” (The Greek equivalent of Saturn is Kronos.)

Turner then sent a telegram to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff stating:

Naming new planet, please consider PLUTO, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet.

At the time at the Lowell Observatory, the leading candidates were Minerva, Zeus, Atlas, and Persephone. When they heard Pluto, many loved it: Not only was the name fitting from a mythological standpoint, but Pluto also started with PL, which would be in homage to Percival Lowell, who had played an integral role in the search for “Planet X,” the predicted ninth planet of the solar system based on irregularities in the orbit of Uranus that could not wholly be accounted for by Neptune. Lowell died 14 years before Pluto would be discovered. (Their estimates of the mass of Neptune were incorrect; Planet X did not actually exist, at least as far as Lowell defined it.)

When it finally came to a vote as to what to officially name the newly discovered planet, it was unanimous, and Venetia became the second person in her family to name a celestial body. (Her great uncle, Science Master of Eton Henry Madan, in 1877 suggested the name for the two dwarf moons of Mars, Deimos and Phobos.)

While Venetia is often credited as being very clever in her choice of Pluto—taking into account the subtle connections between the unnamed planet and the god of the underworld—she doesn’t remember giving it that much thought. “Whether I thought about a dark, gloomy Hades, I’m not sure,” she said in an interview with NASA in 2006. “I can still visualize the table and the room, but I can remember very little about the conversation.” 

Still, Venetia's grandfather, shortly after the event and presumably with a slightly more accurate account given it was fresh in his mind, certainly credited her with giving it a fair amount of rational thought. So much so that he wrote a “Thank You” letter to her teacher, K.M. Claxton, shortly after the name was chosen:

I really believe that had Venetia been under a less capable and enlightened teacher than yourself, the suggestion of Pluto would not have occurred to her, or, if made, would have been just a vague guess. As it is, her acquaintance with some of the old legends of Greek and Roman deities and heroes, and that ‘nature walk’ in the University Parks, by which she was taught the relative spaces between the Planets and the Sun, and the gloom of distance, enabled her to grasp at once the special elements of the situation, and to be the first to make a suggestion so reasonable as to be accepted (it appears) by the whole world of Science.

At the end of May 1930, the director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, Vesto Slipher, announced that the name of the ninth planet would be Pluto. Venetia initially received little attention for being the one who thought up the name, but her grandfather did give her £5, which she said was a type of thing he did often for her: “As a grandfather, he liked to have an excuse for generosity.” Her grandfather also donated a “scrap of paper” and sent the letter noted above to her teacher, Miss Claxton, “… in grateful recognition of your share in Venetia’s triumphant naming of the new planet.” The money he sent with the letter was used to purchase a gramophone for use in teaching Music Appreciation; the gramophone was named “Pluto.”

In naming the planet, Venetia also named one very famous cartoon character: Mickey's dog. Some suggested that she named the planet after the dog, a notion that vexed Venetia. While the dog did appear in 1930, the same year Venetia suggested the name Pluto, his original name was “Rover.”  He didn’t get the name “Pluto” until Moose Hunt, in April of 1931, about a year after the planet was named. “It has now been satisfactorily proven that the dog was named after the planet, rather than the other way around,” she told the BBC in 2006. “So, one is vindicated.”

Venetia died in 2009 at the age of 90, three years after Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet.

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Look Up! Residents of Maine and Michigan Might Catch a Glimpse of the Northern Lights Tonight
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iStock

The aurora borealis, a celestial show usually reserved for spectators near the arctic circle, could potentially appear over parts of the continental U.S. on the night of February 15. As Newsweek reports, a solar storm is on track to illuminate the skies above Maine and Michigan.

The Northern Lights (and the Southern Lights) are caused by electrons from the sun colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar particles transfer some of their energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules on contact, and as these excited molecules settle back to their normal states they release light particles. The results are glowing waves of blue, green, purple, and pink light creating a spectacle for viewers on Earth.

The more solar particles pelt the atmosphere, the more vivid these lights become. Following a moderate solar flare that burst from the sun on Monday, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center forecast a solar light show for tonight. While the Northern Lights are most visible from higher latitudes where the planet’s magnetic field is strongest, northern states are occasionally treated to a view. This is because the magnetic North Pole is closer to the U.S. than the geographic North Pole.

This Thursday night into Friday morning is expected to be one of those occasions. To catch a glimpse of the phenomena from your backyard, wait for the sun to go down and look toward the sky. People living in places with little cloud cover and light pollution will have the best chance of spotting it.

[h/t Newsweek]

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10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Haumea
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0

In terms of sheer weirdness, few objects in the solar system can compete with the dwarf planet Haumea. It has a strange shape, unusual brightness, two moons, and a wild rotation. Its unique features, however, can tell astronomers a lot about the formation of the solar system and the chaotic early years that characterized it. Here are a few things you need to know about Haumea, the tiny world beyond Neptune.

1. THREE HAUMEAS COULD FIT SIDE BY SIDE IN EARTH.

Haumea is a trans-Neptunian object; its orbit, in other words, is beyond that of the farthest ice giant in the solar system. Its discovery was reported to the International Astronomical Union in 2005, and its status as a dwarf planet—the fifth, after Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Pluto—was made official three years later. Dwarf planets have the mass of a planet and have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e., they're round), but have not "cleared their neighborhoods" (meaning their gravity is not dominant in their orbit). Haumea is notable for the large amount of water ice on its surface, and for its size: Only Pluto and Eris are larger in the trans-Neptunian region, and Pluto only slightly, with a 1475-mile diameter versus Haumea's 1442-mile diameter. That means three Haumeas could fit sit by side in Earth—and yet it only has 1/1400th of the mass of our planet.

2. HAUMEA'S DISCOVERY WAS CONTROVERSIAL.

There is some disagreement over who discovered Haumea. A team of astronomers at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain first reported its discovery to the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union on July 27, 2005. A team led by Mike Brown from the Palomar Observatory in California had discovered the object earlier, but had not reported their results, waiting to develop the science and present it at a conference. They later discovered that their files had been accessed by the Spanish team the night before the announcement was made. The Spanish team says that, yes, they did run across those files, having found them in a Google search before making their report to the Minor Planet Center, but that it was happenstance—the result of due diligence to make sure the object had never been reported. In the end, the IAU gave credit for the discovery to the Spanish team—but used the name proposed by the Caltech team.

3. IT'S NAMED FOR A HAWAIIAN GODDESS.

In Hawaiian mythology, Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth. The name was proposed by the astronomers at Caltech to honor the place where Haumea's moon was discovered: the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Its moons—Hi'iaka and Namaka—are named for two of Haumea's children.

4. HAUMEA HAS RINGS—AND THAT'S STRANGE.

Haumea is the farthest known object in the solar system to possess a ring system. This discovery was recently published in the journal Nature. But why does it have rings? And how? "It is not entirely clear to us yet," says lead author Jose-Luis Ortiz, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia and leader of the Spanish team of astronomers who discovered Haumea.

5. HAUMEA'S SURFACE IS EXTREMELY BRIGHT.

In addition to being extremely fast, oddly shaped, and ringed, Haumea is very bright. This brightness is a result of the dwarf planet's composition. On the inside, it's rocky. On the outside, it is covered by a thin film of crystalline water ice [PDF]—the same kind of ice that's in your freezer. That gives Haumea a high albedo, or reflectiveness. It's about as bright as a snow-covered frozen lake on a sunny day.

6. HAUMEA HAS ONE OF THE SHORTEST DAYS IN THE ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM.

If you lived to be a year old on Haumea, you would be 284 years old back on Earth. And if you think a Haumean year is unusual, that's nothing next to the length of a Haumean day. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea to make a full rotation, which means it has by far the fastest spin, and thus shortest day, of any object in the solar system larger than 62 miles.

7. HAUMEA'S HIGH SPEED SQUISHES IT INTO A SHAPE LIKE A RUGBY BALL.

haumea rotation gif
Stephanie Hoover, Wikipedia // Public Domain

As a result of this tornadic rotation, Haumea has an odd shape; its speed compresses it so much that rather than taking a spherical, soccer ball shape, it is flattened and elongated into looking something like a rugby ball.

8. HIGH-SPEED COLLISIONS MAY EXPLAIN HAUMEA'S TWO MOONS.

Ortiz says there are several mechanisms that can have led to rings around the dwarf planet: "One of our favorite scenarios has to do with collisions on Haumea, which can release material from the surface and send it to orbit." Part of the material that remains closer to Haumea can form a ring, and material further away can help form moons. "Because Haumea spins so quickly," Ortiz adds, "it is also possible that material is shed from the surface due to the centrifugal force, or maybe small collisions can trigger ejections of mass. This can also give rise to a ring and moons."

9. ONE MOON HAS WATER ICE—JUST LIKE HAUMEA.

Ortiz says that while the rings haven't transformed scientists' understanding of Haumea, they have clarified the orbit of its largest moon, Hi'iaka—it is equatorial, meaning it circles around Haumea's equator. Hi'iaka is notable for the crystalline water ice on its surface, similar to that on its parent body.

10. TRYING TO SEE HAUMEA FROM EARTH IS LIKE TRYING TO LOOK AT A COIN MORE THAN 100 MILES AWAY.

It's not easy to study Haumea. The dwarf planet, and other objects at that distance from the Sun, are indiscernible to all but the largest telescopes. One technique used by astronomers to study such objects is called "stellar occultation," in which the object is observed as it crosses in front of a star, causing the star to temporarily dim. (This is how exoplanets—those planets orbiting other stars—are also often located and studied.) This technique doesn't always work for objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, however; astronomers must know the objects' orbits and the position of the would-be eclipsed stars to astounding levels of accuracy, which is not always the case. Moreover, Ortiz says, their sizes are oftentimes very small, "comparable to the size of a small coin viewed at a distance of a couple hundred kilometers."

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