For the Young clan, a fascination with outer space seems to run in the family. Leslie Young PhD ’94 and Eliot Young SM ’87, SM ’90, SCD ’93 are “the only brother-sister Pluto team in the Solar System,” according to Alan Stern, the principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission. And the siblings’ dad? None other than Laurence Young ’57, SM ’59, SCD ’62, the Apollo Program Professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who also happens to be a former astronaut.
The New Horizon spacecraft, which spent nearly ten years traveling towards Pluto, reached a milestone when it made its closest pass of the “icy dwarf” planet on July 14. The event was also a milestone in the younger Youngs’ careers, who have spent a quarter of a century making breakthrough discoveries about the tiny planet on the outskirts of the Solar System.
Earlier this spring, journalist Alexandra Witze ’92 interviewed Leslie and Eliot Young for a profile in Nature. The pair has been studying Pluto since the late 1980s, first under the guidance of late MIT professor James Elliot ’65, ‘SM ’65. Leslie recalls her first significant discovery in 1989, when she helped confirm that Pluto has an atmosphere.
Since then, Leslie has identified methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and nitrogen ice on its surface. She has also developed computer models to describe how the surface and atmosphere of Pluto interact.
Eliot has made significant contributions to science’s understanding of Pluto by creating some of the first maps of the planet’s surface. Although proud of his mapping work, he feels his most useful contribution has been developing a method for modeling occultation light curves.
As for Leslie and Eliot’s father: The former NASA payload specialist continues to study the biological effects of weightlessness. What does he think of his two oldest children pursing careers in this mystery-rich branch of science? “I think it’s the closest they could get to doing science fiction and still earn a living.”
Read the full interview with Leslie and Eliot Young at Nature.
Learn more about New Horizon’s mission to Pluto:
View the latest photos and more at NASA’s New Horizons mission page
Slice of MIT: Pluto Flyby: Anybody Home?
MIT News: Richard Binzel on New Horizon’s closest view of Pluto
Popular Science: Meet the Pluto Doctor