Brain Food: Naming Asteroids

Dec 29, 2016

Bach and Mozart have one. ZZ Top has one. And of course all of The Beatles have them. They are asteroids.

Credit Getty Images

Few people have the power to name them. Larry Wasserman can because he’s discovered hundreds. He’s a planetary astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

“Comets”, Wasserman says, “if you discover a comet, a comet is named after you. So if Joe Smith discovers a comet, it’s Comet Smith, but if Joe Smith discovers an asteroid, then he can name it almost anything he wants.”

There are some rules however. Only the person who discovers it can name it. It can’t be named for a religious figure, a living politician, or a pet. Money can’t buy the right to name an asteroid. But if you find one, and it has an established orbit, Wasserman says you can name it just about anything you want, as long as the International Astronomical Union review panel agrees.

“One astronomer named one for his favorite airline. So there’s a Swiss Air out there”, says Wasserman. “There’s one named for Abbott and Costello. There’s one named for Simon and Garfunkle, there’s one named for my parents. There’s one named for my physics teacher in high school. There’s one named for my kids. There’s all kinds of names. Any name will do.”

Wasserman says there are about half a million known asteroids, but most of them don’t have names. That’s because today’s giant survey telescopes capture thousands at a time.

“You know, you got 10,000 objects you just can’t sit down and name all of them!” he says.

He’s currently considering a submission to name the next asteroid Brain Food.