Baltimore's fame goes galactic Asteroid carries name of city

October 31, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Lord Baltimore's name has now been flung far beyond his namesake city on the Chesapeake Bay, deep into the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

A 10-mile-wide rock orbiting some 260 million miles from the sun has been dubbed Asteroid Baltimore by the International Astronomical Union. The naming is in celebration of the bicentennials of the city and the Maryland Academy of Sciences.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will get a "deed" to the asteroid as part of this week's opening of an exhibit at the Maryland Science Center.

Called "Asteroids in the Atrium," the exhibit includes a dramatic painting of the solar system and a 500-pound meteorite that fell in New Mexico thousands of years ago. A one-third scale model of the Maryland-built Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft, now en route to a 1999 encounter with the asteroid Eros, also is shown.

Asteroid Baltimore "has our name on it, but don't take it the wrong way," said Jim O'Leary, director of the Science Center's Davis Planetarium.

The asteroid's orbit never brings it closer to Charm City than the orbit of Mars, O'Leary said. It was named at his request by the person who discovered it, Eleanor Francis Helin (pronounced "Helene"). She heads NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Since the first asteroid was discovered in 1801, astronomers have cataloged nearly 8,000 whose orbits are sufficiently well-documented to qualify for an official number from the IAU. About 5,700 of those have been granted names.

Most (2,500) are named for men; astronomers (1,100); women (700) and mythological characters (500). Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh, Nantucket, Pasadena, Cambridge, Paris, Moscow and Vienna are among several hundred places with asteroids named for them.

Helin has discovered and named hundreds of asteroids. "It's perhaps one of the most joyful and pleasant things to do, to share and 'give' someone an asteroid, so to speak."

She spends a great deal of time considering the requests and trying to find a good "match" between a name and an asteroid. For Baltimore, she chose a member of "a rather prestigious group of less than 100 [asteroids] known to be unusual because of the nature of their orbits."

Asteroid Baltimore, which circles the sun once every four years and eight months, follows an "eccentric" path that is tilted nearly 30 degrees from the plane of the solar system.

At its closest approach to the sun, it ventures just inside the orbit of Mars, about 149 million miles from the sun. At its farthest, it travels as far as 367 million miles from the sun.

Earth is about 93 million miles from the sun.

"This is a nice object," said Brian Marsden, director of the Minor Planet Center at the IAU's Center for Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge, Mass. "How big it is, we don't know. We know how bright it is, but we don't know how well it reflects sunlight."

The best guess, however, is that Asteroid Baltimore belongs to a class of "carbonaceous" asteroids that is as black as coal, reflecting barely 4 percent of the light that strikes it. To be seen at all, it would have to be a fairly large object, perhaps 10 to 15 miles across. That's just about the size of Baltimore.

Asteroids are believed to be the rubble left over from the construction of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Thousands have been spotted -- 13,000 by Helin's project alone since December 1995.

Stony or metallic, most are concentrated in the Asteroid Belt, a band of dust and rocks orbiting the sun in the region between Mars and Jupiter. Jupiter's huge gravitational field prevented them from coalescing into a planet.

Although Asteroid Baltimore's tiny light does sometimes shine over the city, it is too faint to see without dark skies, telescopes and electronic light detectors.

Helin discovered the asteroid Feb. 11, 1989, during photographic observations from the Mount Palomar Observatory in California.

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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