August 06, 2003
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."
Committee on Small Body Nomenclature Asteroid Naming Guidelines