Press Release

A Rock By Any Other Name

By SpaceRef Editor
August 8, 2003
Filed under , ,

It begins with a faint trace of light that besmirches an astronomer’s
otherwise pristine image of a starfield. The process ends, if the
observer is lucky, with an opportunity to dispense a cosmological
version of immortality by naming a celestial object for an earthly
entity.


Such an enduring cosmic homage can be brought to you by asteroids,
those massive hunks of rock, metal and/or rubble that, for the most
part, silently patrol the dark corners of our solar system. The
practice of naming them began with the discovery of the very first
asteroid in 1801. Back then, astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi decided to
dedicate his find to Ceres, the Roman goddess of harvest, and for a
while the mythological route seemed the way to go. But, as the saying
goes, that was then and this is now.


Today, there are more than 150,000 asteroids logged with the
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Minor Planet Center, but less
than 10 percent have names. Such massive quantities of anonymous space
rock require astronomers to look well beyond agriculturally-attuned
Roman goddesses to honor – and that means today’s asteroid discoverers
have some dedication maneuvering room.


"Some room to maneuver but not a lot," said Dr. Don Yeomans, a member
of the International Astronomical Union’s Committee on Small Body
Nomenclature. "Asteroids have been named for everything from famous
painters and writers to cities, rivers and even figures of literature.
We encourage creativity but we also have a set of guidelines and a
proposed name must fall within those guidelines or it’s usually gone."


Once an object is confirmed by the Minor Planet Center as a new
asteroid, the discoverer can submit a suggested name and a
corresponding citation that explains the reasons for the naming. That
name and its citation are added to a list, and every two months the
Committee on Small Body Nomenclature reviews the submissions. Since
the committee’s 15 members are scattered around the world, they
correspond mostly by email.


"Committee members usually provide one of three standard responses,"
said Yeomans. "Yes, no or ‘heck no.’ Generally, majority rules but if
we get three ‘heck no’s’ that is usually enough to kill a submission."


While the committee confers on and sometimes argues over 150 proposed
asteroid names and citations, another 10,000 new ones are discovered.
Yeomans admits the quantity put through the naming process is an
insignificant percentage, but argues the result of these dedications
in and of themselves are not insignificant.


"One big reason is that looking for asteroids is a relatively
thankless but important task," said Yeomans. "We need to keep an eye
on these space rocks because they have a habit of every once in a
while entering our neighborhood. Allowing astronomers to name their
discovery is an incentive and it honors their efforts."


Having dedicated the past 35 years to the detection and analysis of
asteroids and comets, Yeomans has himself been so honored. It is a
tribute that Yeomans will tell you provides no tangible benefits. He’s
never received a free meal because of his space rock nor has anyone
ever sent him an embossed certificate and a booklet on astronomy.
Still, the JPL asteroid hunter would not trade his slice of celestial
real estate for anything out of this world.


"It really is quite an honor," added Yeomans. "You have this massive
object bearing your name soaring through the solar system for the next
five to six billion years. There is a certain amount of immortality
that goes along with that."


Asteroid Flash Animation
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/templates/flash/neo/neo.htm


Minor Planet Center
http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/iau/mpc.html


SpaceRef staff editor.