Heavens opening for mere mortals

Asteroids: The rapid pace of discovery has astronomers scrambling to find names for the stellar bodies.

August 21, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

In this solar system, the planets were named for ancient gods. The asteroids were named for goddesses.

So how did a bunch of guys from Ellicott City, Mount Airy, Potomac and Columbia get seven asteroids named for them by the International Astronomical Union?

The answer is, the IAU needs all the names it can get.

With better telescopes and intense new searches for Earth-threatening space rocks, astronomers are finding hundreds of new asteroids every month. They're piling up faster than the IAU's 11-member Small Bodies Names Committee can dole out names. And they are handing them out by the truckload -- hundreds of them every two months.

Astronomers who have found scores of asteroids soon run out of heroes and friends and family members. They turn the rest over to colleagues, who may nominate their schools, peers, co-workers, spouses, kids and even their secretaries for the honor.

Asteroids aren't named for just anyone yet. The seven guys from Maryland who got theirs in July all work on the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission, built and run by the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel. NEAR has provided up-close photos of two asteroids -- Mathilde and Eros -- and is on track to begin orbiting Eros in February.

But even they seemed genuinely astonished.

"I didn't consider myself high enough up in the hierarchy to merit this recognition," said planetary scientist Noam Izenberg of Columbia.

Izenberg is only 31 years old, and he's been at APL barely two years. Yet, asteroid 5584 -- a 5- to 10-mile-wide rock sailing along somewhere beyond the orbit of Mars -- will forevermore be known as 5584 Izenberg.

Gene Heyler was surprised, too. And grateful. He's a space path engineer at APL. He makes sure NEAR is pointed the right way. But he does not have a doctorate. "I didn't know they gave these awards to engineers; just to scientists," he said.

APL's honorees, and 13 other NEAR staffers elsewhere, were nominated by the project's science team leader, Joseph Veverka, of Cornell University and geologist Mark S. Robinson of the U.S. Geological Survey. They got the naming rights from asteroid hunters Henry E. Holt and Edward Bowell, who have found more than they could name.

"We used the opportunity to reward some people who have worked very hard on the NEAR project," Veverka said. He hastened to add that others deserve and will get them. "It's not the end of the process. There is great sensitivity among the people who have not had an asteroid named after them as yet."

One who was honored in July was Mary L. Roth, Veverka's secretary at Cornell (asteroid 5595 Roth). He cited her as "a diligent contributor to the Cornell space effort for the past 25 years."

"I was thrilled," Roth said.

Not enough giants

There simply aren't enough scientific giants for all the asteroids out there waiting to be discovered and named. It took 198 years to find the first 11,000 asteroids, but the next 10,000 are expected to turn up in just five years.

Of those found so far, only 6,898 have been named. There is a backlog of 4,350 (and counting) that languish with only the sequential number assigned to them by the IAU as they were discovered.

The IAU is pedaling as fast as it can. Having exhausted the available goddesses, the IAU long ago opened the naming options to mere mortals, including men and women, living or dead; the discoverers themselves and their family members; inventors, scientists and astronomers and their benefactors and friends. Cities, institutions, harbors and buildings are also fair game.

It assigned 169 names last month. The IAU's bimonthly lists of new names have sometimes topped 300.

"We put a list out every two months," said Brian Marsden, director of the IAU's Minor Planets Center, who coordinates the naming process. That's not fast enough, but "we can't stand doing it every month."

The process usually involves laborious fact-checking and editing of the nominations and attached citations.

"Though I don't mean to denigrate the honors given to people, if we have to read through hundreds of citations, it's rather boring, quite frankly," Marsden said. To ease their burden, the committee recently asked that all future nominations be cut from 10 typed lines to four.

Still an honor

"You would have to draw the conclusion that the honor of naming is not what it used to be," he said. "On the other hand, it's something astronomers like to do, and the people for whom they're named certainly appreciate it."

True enough.

"It's tickled me completely," said Izenberg. "I don't have my college or Ph.D. diplomas framed. But this I'm going to frame."

Scott Murchie, 39, an instrument scientist on the NEAR project, said his 5-year-old daughter was even more delighted than he was by asteroid 4642 Murchie.

"She said, `Oh boy!' " he reported. "She has a rock at Mars Pathfinder named after her cat, and now an asteroid" with her last name on it.

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