Science & Technology

Pluto Was Named by an 11-Year-Old Girl

Pluto may not be a planet anymore, but it still has an interesting story. It was discovered less than a century ago, and in 2006 it became the only planet in our solar system to be reclassified as a dwarf planet. A lot of people are still pretty upset about the reclassification, but the planet's origin story is far more innocent: It was named by an 11-year-old girl who somehow resisted the temptation to call it "Planet McPlanetface."

You Give the Universe a Bad Name

The English names for our nearest neighboring planets come from the Romans, who named Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury after their gods and goddesses. So what about Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto? These outer planets were officially classified as planets in 1781, 1846, and 1930, respectively, but there was much ado about their names.

When he discovered Uranus, Sir William Herschel tried to name the planet Georgium Sidus (George's Star), or the "Georgian Planet," to honor King George III. The name was unpopular outside of Britain (we can't imagine why), so alternative names were proposed and used until the name "Uranus" (Greek god of the sky and husband of Gaia, or Earth) became universal in 1850 — nearly 70 years after its discovery. Neptune also had a rocky path to being named after the Roman god of the sea: Claiming the right to name his discovery, French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier tried to dub the planet Le Verrier, after himself. An unpopular pick outside of France, the international community again overruled the proposed name in favor of a mythological name in line with those of the other planets.

Fast forward to 1930, when Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona confirmed the existence of Pluto after nearly a year of searching. The first photographs of the celestial object made headlines around the world, and the observatory thus had the right to name the new object. Suggestions began to pour in: Atlas, Prometheus, Odin, Persephone, Zymal, and even a couple who wanted the planet named after their newborn child. Then "Pluto" came from halfway around the world.

An 11-year-old girl from Oxford, England is credited with naming Pluto. Venetia Burney suggested the name to her grandfather after being inspired by the Roman god of the underworld. Her grandfather, Falconer Madan, was Librarian of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford. Madan passed the name to Herbert Hall Turner, an astronomy professor, and Turner cabled the suggestion to colleagues at the Lowell Observatory.

Pluto was one of three finalists voted on by members of the Lowell Observatory, the other two names being Minerva and Cronus. Pluto received every vote, as Minerva was already the name of an asteroid and Cronus had been suggested by an unpopular astronomer who had been fired from Lowell Observatory in 1898 for "his arrogant attitude towards the staff." It also didn't hurt that the first two letters of Pluto are the initials of Percival Lowell, the observatory's founder. When the name was announced on May 1, 1930, Madan gave his granddaughter Venetia £5 — the equivalent of about £320 or $450 in 2018 — as a reward. Not a bad haul for an 11-year-old! (Although she did name an entire planet.)

These days, naming a planet isn't so simple. The International Astronomical Union was formed nearly a century ago to encourage international cooperation between astronomers all around the world. The IAU now regulates the naming of asteroids, planets, comets, moons, and even geographical features on extraterrestrial worlds. This involves a long, carefully regulated process of proposals and committees to ensure that names aren't offensive, redundant, or just too silly (though some have slipped through the cracks).

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What's happening with Pluto today, and what's next? Read the inside story of New Horizons' mission in "Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Cody Gough April 29, 2018

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