How Pluto got its name


How Pluto got its name

Though the planet Pluto was discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, the credit for naming the outermost planet* of the solar system goes to an eleven year-old girl in Oxford.

Venetia Burney came from a very academic family. She was the daughter of Rev. Charles Fox Burney, Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford. Her maternal grandfather Falconer Madan was Librarian of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, and her grandfather's brother had come up with the names of the moons of Mars (Phobos and Deimos) in 1878 whilst working as Science Master at Eton.

On 14th March 1930, Falconer Madan read the story of the discovery of the new planet in The Times, and mentioned it to his granddaughter Venetia. She suggested the name Pluto – the Roman God of the Underworld who was able to make himself invisible − and Falconer Madan forwarded the suggestion to astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who cabled his American colleagues at Lowell Observatory.

Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of the planet, liked the proposal because it started with the initials of Percival Lowell who had predicted the existence of this planet. On 1st May 1930, the name Pluto was formally adopted for the new celestial body.

Venetia Burney became an accountant and a teacher, married and lived to the age of 90, dying in 2009. She lived to see the New Horizons mission set off for Pluto.

In August 2017, Venetia made her mark on Pluto again. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) approved the names of several surface features on Pluto, including Burney crater in honour of Venetia Burney.

* Pluto is no longer considered the ninth planet in the Solar System and was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006 due to the discovery of other small planets of similar size beyond Pluto - leaving only eight planets in our Solar System.

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