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.
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.