The Intriguing Art Of Naming Asteroids

Friday July 13, 2018 Written by Sam Wilson

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What do Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Lewis and Jane Austen have in common (besides names starting with J)? Hint: it’s something they share with David Bowie, David Lynch, Salvador Dali, the cast of Monty Python and the Apollo 11 astronauts, as well as our own Weary Dunlop. Give in? They’ve all had asteroids named after them.

These luminaries comprise just the tiniest tip of the cosmic iceberg that is the Minor Planet Center’s official list of Minor Planet Names. More asteroids are named after people than anything else, forming a celestial cavalcade of famous musicians, artists, writers, scientists, actors, war heroes, sports stars and explorers.

There are asteroids called James Bond and Sean Connery but curiously, none named after Roger Moonraker Moore, the only Bond who’s ever been to outer space. Actually, speaking of Special Agent 007, he’s just one of many fictional characters to have been granted interstellar immortality.

Meanwhile, the countless space rocks named after terrestrial locations are enough to make you wonder if the Minor Planet Center is prepping for the day Planet Earth gives up the ghost and humanity ventures forth to colonise other worlds. Should that happen, intergalactic Finns will feel right at home, with an impressive 54 asteroids named after Finnish destinations to choose from. (It’ll be a tight squeeze for folks from India, though, on their two solitary asteroids, Bharat and Taj Mahal.)

So who’s responsible for naming asteroids, anyway? Whoever spots them first.

As the Minor Planet Center suggests, “If you have a name you would like to apply [to an asteroid], the best advice is Go out and discover one!" That’s right. Find an asteroid before anyone else, and you can even give it your own name.

After that, it’s a small matter of following the official naming conventions. Asteroid names should contain fewer than 16 characters, preferably be one word that’s pronounceable and inoffensive, and – sadly, for those of us convinced our moggy’s from a galaxy far, far away -- not be named after your pet.

Read about the astronomer who named an asteroid after his cat and ruined it for the rest of us.

Image: courtesy of NASA