June 4, 2020

Review: Naming Pluto.

We here at Astroguyz are always on the lookout for an unheard of astronomical tale. Naming Pluto, a short documentary film by Ginita Jimenez of Father Films tells the intriguing story of how the ever-controversial planet Pluto was first named. It is a very human drama, and one that should be better known than it is.

History tells us of how Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto during his diligent hunt for Planet X on February 18th, 1930. What’s generally not known is that the name Pluto was proposed by then eleven year old school girl Venetia Burney Phair of Oxford, England and adopted on March 24th, 1930. Naming Pluto follows the interview of Mrs. Phair on January 18th, 2006 the eve of the launch of the New Horizons spacecraft on the first mission to Pluto.  Mrs. Phair also stands as the only woman to name a planet. Other fascinating bits of trivia surrounding the discovery of the tiny world abound. Did you know for instance, that the naming of Pluto coincided with the discovery date of Uranus?

The film also has several smart animations and graphics throughout… (Can you spy Ganymede?) The run time is about 12:49, and perhaps our only objection is that we wish it were longer!  Mrs. Phair professes to have never actually seen Pluto in the opening interview, and several British astronomers decide to take her up the challenge. At about +14th magnitude, Pluto is indeed a tough challenge; I’ve only spotted it once with the 16″ telescope at the Flandrau observatory in Tucson, Arizona, although it is possible with apertures as small as 6″ under superb skies. Prepare to be unimpressed; part of the thrill of spotting a faint object such as Pluto is knowing what you’re looking at.

The film also features several scenes with the prolific British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. (a monocle exponentially adds to your coolness ratio as an astronomer!) Mrs. Phair attempts to spot Pluto from Moore’s private observatory, but the fickle English weather intervenes. Much of the “is Pluto a Planet?” controversy is thankfully sidestepped, instead presenting the viewer with the wonder of discovery. “Its not demoted…Pluto will always be there!” quips Moore at one point. Mrs. Phair is finally successful at the Observatory Science center in Herstmonceux, England on the eve of her 89th birthday.

The demonstration of the blink comparator that Tombaugh used to discover Pluto is one of the best that I’ve seen in illustrating this innovative device. Moore was seven when Pluto was discovered, and his anecdote on eventually meeting Tombaugh was especially amusing. Tombaugh, also a resourceful amateur astronomer, had constructed a telescope using bicycle parts for a mount. He even had a coffee can for a cover! Tombaugh passed away on January 17th, 1997.

Mrs. Phair’s suggestion to name Pluto had been brought to the attention of the Lowell observatory via her father’s connections at the Oxford Library. The name was especially appealing because of use of the initials “PL” as in Percival Lowell, the founder of the observatory. The symbol for Pluto also reflects this.

This film is wonderful in that it also shows the impact the discovery and naming has had on school kids. It follows Mrs. Phair as she visits a classroom and listens to kids’ ideas. You can see the awe as children realize that their ideas do indeed count and that children can contribute to the world of science, as well.

Sadly, Venetia Burney Phair recently passed away on April 30th, 2009 at the age of 90. It’s sobering to think that she and Tombaugh will not be with us to witness the New Horizons flyby of their planet on July 14th, 2015, but this short film serves as a testament to her contribution to this piece of astronomical history. An asteroid, 6235 Burney was named in her honor, as well as the Student Dust Counter aboard the New Horizons space craft.

This film would serve as an excellent showing at your next astronomy club meeting, a good educational tool, or just a wonderful addition to a private collection. The DVD can be purchased from Father Films at their online shop.

Don’t forget, the 80th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto is coming up next year… no doubt, Pluto will become topical again. Now, to wait until 2015 and see how well those simulations of Pluto and Charon match up to the New Horizons images as it whizzes past….

Movie Trailer…


  1. It should be noted that the IAU’s controversial demotion of Pluto is very likely not the last word on the subject and in fact represents only one interpretation in an ongoing debate. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists favor a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they attain a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto meets this criterion and is therefore a planet.


  1. [...] was aged 11. Mrs. Phair only recently passed away in 2009, and an outstanding documentary entitled Naming Pluto was recently made by director Ginita Jimenez about her life. It’s definitely worth searching [...]

  2. [...] the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, named after Venetia Burney, (later Venetia Phair) the girl who named Pluto at age 6 shortly after its discovery in 1930. Miss Phair died in [...]

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