New celestial neighbor

September 24, 1992

The recent announcement of the discovery of an icy, asteroid-sized object orbiting the Sun a billion miles beyond Pluto has created a stir in astronomy circles. This celestial neighbor is the most distant member of the solar system yet observed. The discovery was the result of a five-year search by David Jewitt, a University of Hawaii astronomer, and Jane Luu, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, for evidence supporting the theory that some comets, like the one named after Englishman Edmund Halley, come from a ring of icy material at the outer rim of the solar system.

The new find is too small to be a planet and too far away to be an ordinary asteroid. A new term may have to be coined for such objects, which seem to share qualities of both comets and asteroids. Meanwhile, the object has been given a tentative designation from the International Astronomical Union. The privilege of naming it goes to its discoverers once its orbit has been confirmed.

Finding a suitable moniker won't be all that easy, however. The convention of naming celestial bodies after figures from Greek and Roman mythology has run up against a problem: there aren't enough names to go around. So astronomers have borrowed from Teutonic legend, Shakespearean drama, even historical personages -- composer Richard Wagner has an asteroid named for him.

To maintain a semblance of order, astronomers try to give similar objects similar names. For instance, the two celestial neighbors that seem to most resemble the new object are a couple of recently discovered chunks of material orbiting the Sun between Saturn and Uranus. They were named Chiron and Pholus after two mythological creatures called centaurs. The centaur is described in Ovid's "Metamorphosis" as a beast with the head and torso of a man and the body of a horse.

So why not just name the new object after another centaur? Not so good -- the centaurs were pretty unsavory characters. The centaur Nessus, for example, first tried to rape the wife of Hercules, then tricked her into poisoning her husband with a phony love potion. King Pirithous of Lapithae once invited the centaurs to his wedding; the ungrateful wretches got so drunk they tried to carry off the royal bride. Pirithous himself tried to steal Pluto's wife, Persephone, and wound up chained to a rock for his trouble. These guys were tough on the neighborhood.

Here's a suggestion: When it's time to choose a name, pick something harmless -- like Jack.

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