(originally run February 13, 1998)

The first asteroid was discovered almost two centuries ago, on January 1, 1801, by the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi at Palermo Observatory in Sicily. In keeping with the then-current tradition of naming planetary bodies after figures from Roman mythology, Piazzi christened the new object Ceres, the Roman goddess of harvests (and the patron goddess of Sicily). Additional asteroids were discovered in subsequent years and these, too, were given names of various mythological figures.

By the latter years of the 19th Century several hundred asteroids had been discovered, and the astronomers of that era quickly came to the conclusion that there were far more asteroids than there were mythological names to go around. As a result, asteroids began to be named after their discoverers' family members (usually the wife, daughters, or mother, since almost all the astronomers of that era were male), after benefactors, after hometowns and institutions, and so on.

These days, with modern equipment and as a result of numerous search efforts, hundreds of asteroids are discovered every month. A significant percentage of these are followed for a fairly long period of time and/or they can be identified with asteroids detected sometime in the past. Once an asteroid has been observed sufficiently well so that it can have a precise orbit calculated and astronomers can be reasonably confident that it won't become "lost" it is assigned a permanent number (usually given in parentheses). Ceres, of course, is asteroid number (1); the highest-numbered asteroid as of this writing is (8240).

Once an asteroid has been numbered it can then be given a name. In keeping with tradition, the "privilege" of assigning a name is usually given to the object's discoverer, although any proposed name must be approved by a special committee of the International Astronomical Union. (There are a few rules and prohibitions which exist as a result of international agreement.) Many discoverers today continue to follow the century-old tradition of naming their discoveries after family members, friends, home regions, and so on.

There are some traditions which apply to asteroids in special types of orbits. For example, asteroids which come inside the orbit of the Earth are still usually named for characters from Greek mythology; examples include (1862) Apollo, (2101) Adonis, (4341) Poseidon and (5731) Zeus. A subset of these objects are those which actually have orbits smaller than that of the Earth; these are usually given names out of Egyptian mythology, for example, (2062) Aten and (3554) Amun. (One of these asteroids, number (2100), was discovered at the same time as the Camp David peace accords in 1978 and was accordingly given the name Ra-Shalom.) Asteroids which come near to, but don't cross, the Earth's orbit are often given names out of Aztez or Inca mythology, for example, (1915) Quetzalcoatl and (1980) Tezcatlipoca.

Several asteroids have been discovered which orbit the sun in the same orbit as the planet Jupiter, but well ahead of it or behind it in gravitationally stable points called "Lagrangian points." Such asteroids are collectively referred to as "Trojan" asteroids and are named after figures from the Trojan War; examples include (588) Achilles, (911) Agamemnon, and (1143) Odysseus. A few years ago the first known "Mars Trojan" was discovered, and its discoverers decided to start a new tradition by christening such objects after "expressions of joy;" this object was named (5261) Eureka.

Many of the names given to "ordinary" main-belt asteroids honor famous astronomers and other scientists; among these are (662) Newtonia (many of the early asteroid names were feminized), (1604) Tombaugh, (1991) Darwin, (2001) Einstein, (2074) Shoemaker, (2709) Sagan and (7495) Feynman. Amateur astronomers who have made significant contributions are also frequently honored, for example (3673) Levy, (5799) Brewington and (7086) Bopp.

Many asteroids are given names of various cultural icons. Writers are fairly common; for example, we have (2106) Hugo, (2984) Chaucer, (2985) Shakespeare, (4370) Dickens and (5231) Verne among "older" authors, and for those who look for more modern works, we have (2675) Tolkein, (4923) Clarke and (5020) Asimov.

Music is also very popular; (1034) Mozartia, (1814) Bach, (1815) Beethoven, (2055) Dvorak, (3784) Chopin and (4559) Strauss represent some of the "older" musicians found in the asteroid belt. Younger astronomers may appreciate the quartet (4147) Lennon, (4148) McCartney, (4149) Harrison and (4150) Starr, along with (3834) Zappafrank, (4305) Clapton and (4442) Garcia (from Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead). Those whose tastes don't quite tend towards rock 'n roll may prefer (6354) Vangelis or, possibly, (6433) Enya. Also orbiting the sun we find journalists such as (6318) Cronkite, entertainers like (3252) Johnny (from Johnny Carson), pioneers like (3895) Earhart, and sports heroes such as (6758) Jesseowens.

The namings of some asteroids are stories in their own right. (4105) Tsia, which this author had a role in naming, honors the state of New Mexico and its flag. ("Tsia" is the spelling of the flag's sun symbol in Keresan, the native language of the Zia pueblo.) (2309) Mr. Spock is named, not for the Star Trek character, but rather for the discoverer's cat who, like his namesake, is "imperturbable, logical, intelligent, and had pointed ears." And then there's the case of (3142) Kilopi, the story behind the naming of which is left as an exercise for the reader. (Hint: it's a very "circular" story . . . )

Oh, if anyone asks: there is indeed an asteroid (1024) Hale, although this object honors the early 20th Century astrophysicist George Ellery Hale (after whom the large telescope on Mount Palomar in California is also named) rather than this author. Not to worry, though, for there is also (4151) Alanhale, an object discovered in 1985 by the husband-and-wife team of Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker. Someday, perhaps, a tourist resort in the asteroid belt . . .


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