Crater on Pluto named after Columbus native Jim Elliot


By Kevin Stankiewicz - The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)



COLUMBUS — Before Carl Sagan recruited him to Cornell University, before he helped discover the rings of Uranus and before he assisted in the detection of Pluto’s atmosphere, Jim Elliot was a boy growing up in Columbus who fell in love with his neighbor’s telescope.

The passion and curiosity he developed through that backyard telescope took him from the halls of North High School to the upper echelons of science. Recently, it landed his name on a crater on Pluto’s surface.

Elliot, who died from complications related to cancer treatment in 2011, didn’t visit or discover Elliot Crater. But the crater was named in his honor last fall after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft executed the first flyby of Pluto in 2015, sending back troves of data and high-quality images of the curious dwarf planet for the first time.

“We would not have had a mission to Pluto if it hadn’t been for his scientific study of it,” said Leslie Young, a planetary astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute, or SWRI, in Boulder, Colorado, and a member of the New Horizons team.

It’s why the team wanted to name the feature after Elliot, said Cathy Olkin, who works with Young at SWRI and on the New Horizons mission.

Olkin and Young were both students of Elliot’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as was a third New Horizons scientist, Amanda Zangari.

The crater was a perfect match for Elliot, Young said, because its central peak and large amounts of nitrogen ice make it “one of the most beautiful places on Pluto.”

“We liked that we named something distinctive after Jim, and liked that we named something after him that we’d be referring to all the time,” Young said.

In his youth, it wasn’t obvious that Elliot would become an astronomer whose discoveries would render textbooks outdated, said his sister, Suzanne Elliot of New London, Connecticut. But it was clear he had an innate intelligence. He loved to build AM radios and also constructed a chemistry lab in their basement, she said.

“We all knew his mind was working on a different level than ours,’” said Jim Tootle of Worthington, who met Elliot in kindergarten and remained friends until his death.

Elliot’s first real exposure to outer space came when he was about 13, about the time his father died, his sister said. That’s when he started spending time at the home of Cedric Hesthal, an Ohio State physics professor who lived two doors down from the Elliot family in Clintonville and had a backyard telescope that Elliot grew to love.

Hesthal became a mentor to Elliot, who graduated from North High in 1961.

Elliot didn’t forget the kindness and encouragement Hesthal showed him. Instead, he paid it forward, developing a reputation as a supportive mentor to his own students. Olkin said he always let students work on answering questions they found most interesting, and he loved to leave the lab and take walks with students and colleagues to help clear their mind.

Elliot was also known for his strong support of women pursuing science.

Heidi Hammel was a sophomore at MIT in 1979 who enrolled in Elliot’s observational astronomy course because she had an elective to fill. She was one of four students in the class; two were graduate students, the other was a senior. All three were men.

As the semester intensified, Hammel nearly dropped the course. But she said Elliot insisted she remain in it, offering to help her collect the data she needed for a big project that was almost due. She ended up getting the data, finishing the project and went on to complete a PhD in astronomy at the University of Hawaii.

“He was one of those mentors who was able to see qualities in you that you didn’t know were there,” said Hammel, who is now executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

Elliot’s first major discovery came in 1977, when he and two colleagues at Cornell — Edward Dunham and Jessica Mink — discovered the rings of Uranus. At the time, Saturn was the only planet known to have rings. To make the discovery, they used a technique called stellar occultations, which occur when light from a star is blocked by an object that passes in front of it.

A little more than a decade later, in 1988, Elliot and a team of researchers used occultations to detect Pluto’s atmosphere, a discovery that Hammel said “totally changed people’s perceptions of what could exist.”

Elliot’s contributions were not the kind that get buried in the annals of science; they received mainstream attention. In 1977, Sagan told the world about Elliot’s discovery of Uranus’ rings on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

Elliot also appeared on “To Tell the Truth” shortly after the discovery, and in 2002, there was a question on “Jeopardy” about it. Elliot’s hand-written draft of a telegram following the discovery also remains on display in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Elliot didn’t live in Columbus again after graduating high school, but his longtime friend Tootle said he was proud to be from Columbus and proud of his public-school roots. Elliot returned for high-school reunions and remained an Ohio State Buckeyes fan, Tootle said. “He never lost his connections with the old hometown.”

Elliot’s connections to whatever additional discoveries the New Horizons mission makes won’t be lost, either. The mission is now en route to an object deeper in the Kuiper Belt, called 2014 MU69. It is expected to reach the tiny chip of ice or rock that orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto on Jan. 1.

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By Kevin Stankiewicz

The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)

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