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Latest honour highlights decades of local astronomy work, and gives a glimpse into how the night sky is named
Two Victorians who’ve devoted their lifelong passion for the stars to teaching its mysteries have been given a rare, out-of-this-world honour: They’ve had asteroids named after them.
Author-historian Chris Gainor and educator-volunteer Lauri Roche are among 40 people who last week learned orbiting leftovers from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago will forever bear their names.
“It’s pretty neat thinking there’s something, way out there, with your name on it,” Gainor—a past president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC)—tells Capital Daily.
“No, I’ve never imagined something like this.”
Neither did Roche, who is also a member of the RASC and is a past president of the Victoria chapter.
“It’s just amazing. I didn’t know anything about it,” Roche tells Capital Daily. “It was a complete surprise.”
On Wednesday, the International Astronomy Union (IAU) announced the names of the 40 individuals—half of them Canadians—-whose names will live among the stars, including environmentalist David Suzuki and fellow prominent science journalists Ivan Semeniuk, Dan Falk and Nicole Mortillaro.
Locals’ namings honour decades of teaching, writing, and volunteering
Gainor has written six books about aerospace, including Not Yet Imagined, the Operational History of the Hubble Space Telescope, which NASA published in 2021. He says he’s as happy for Roche as he is for himself.
“She is very deserving because she’s done a lot of work as an educator,” he says. “She’s also been quite a force in the Friends of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, which is quite a good thing and hasn’t been easy dealing with the pandemic.”
Roche, is a retired maths teacher and tireless volunteer for the RASC, contributing to its Education and Public Outreach committee.
A council member of the RASC where she has volunteered since 1995, Roche is on the board of directors of the Friends of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, a group dedicated to restoring the Centre of the Universe—the observatory’s visitor and education centre located on Observatory Hill, in Saanich, which took a severe federal funding cut in 2013.
Roche is happy discussing astronomy whether it be in schools or at the Saanich Fair. She tells Capital Daily she feels almost overwhelmed.
“In some ways, I’m certainly not in any way in the same ballpark as those guys are,” she says, referring to the long list of astronomers, scientists and professors who’ve had asteroids named after themselves.
That list includes RASC President Michael Watson, RASC 2nd Vice-President Betty Robinson, Sid Sidhu, Jim Hesser, Betty Hesser, Colin Scarfe, Jeremy Tatum, David Balam, Helen Sawyer-Hogg, John Climenhaga, John Stanley Plaskett—for whom the Plaskett telescope, Canada’s first major foray into space back in 1918, was named—and CBC Radio Quirks and Quarks host Bob McDonald.
There are 618 asteroids with a Canadian connection.
RASC Executive Director Jenna Hinds says both locals are more than deserving of being among those names.
“[Roche] has done a lot of work promoting astronomy,” Hinds tells Capital Daily. “It's quite a big deal to the recipients and within our community here, for sure. Chris Gainor has had an incredible career; he really deserves the honour.”
Others on the IAU list hail from various countries and occupations, including the namesake of (332884) Arianagrande. Singer Ariana Grande is not only a star, she’s an asteroid.
If asteroids could sing, the Milky Way would sound so good
Grande isn’t the only singer represented in our solar system. All the Beatles—John, Paul, George and Ringo—have an asteroid named after them. So do Mozart and Beethoven. Freddy Mercury and Brian May of Queen have asteroids named after them. Montreal’s William Shatner and fellow Star Trekker Leonard Nimoy are up there, as are James Bond, Mother Teresa, and the Tsawout First Nation.
There are rules to this name game
Naming these smallish celestial bodies that perpetually are moving around the sun is more of a process than a science.
Officially, for example, (12) Victoria is named after the Roman goddess of victory, the equivalent of the Greek’s Nike. But many believe the founding astronomer—an Englishman—was really paying tribute to the sitting monarch at the time.
(12) Victoria is also one of the first to be at least associated with—if not named after—a living person because asteroids traditionally took names adopted from Greco-Roman goddesses and gods.
The first asteroid to be named was discovered by an Italian astronomer on New Year’s Day, 1801. Ceres was the first of many to be named after a god, usually Greek.
Eros was the first near-Earth asteroid (closer to the sun at 150 million km) discovered, and the namesake of the Greek god of love also was the first to be visited by a spacecraft when NASA’s NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) Shoemaker travelled to the 34 km-long rock in 2000—and actually landed on it a year later.
The system used to name asteroids today was first adopted in 1925, when the IAU began to provide a permanent number (in brackets before a name) which can be no longer than 16 characters. In addition, names must be inoffensive, be of no political or military stripe, be distinctively different from any product or trademark, and not coincide with the names of anything else in the solar system.
In the 1900s, the number of discovered asteroids was growing astronomically, doubling to 200 over just one decade, so new naming criteria was drawn up, including the use of male names. Up until that point, most asteroids were named after women.
The naming conventions continued to evolve, from a solitary name to the placement of a tracking number in front of it.
"There's a lot of asteroids out there," Hinds tells Capital Daily.
"More and more got discovered as our optics got better and our telescopes got better and better,” she tells Capital Daily.
Eventually, Gainor says, photography became more common in spotting asteroids, which was helpful because it takes multiple sightings to properly “discover” an asteroid.
“You have to get several observations of it to figure out what its path is,” he says. And that became even more practicable with the advent of automated telescopes and satellites.
"And now for the most part, it's like computer programs and robotics that discover new asteroids just from looking through massive amounts of data,” Roche says.
The IAU recognizes an asteroid only after its position can be reliably predictable, so its orbit is tracked for as long as a decade.
Whoever discovered the asteroid gets to name it, but if that doesn’t happen, it can remain a number for years.
"Typically, asteroids do not get named after the astronomers who discovered them,” the RASC’s Hinds tells Capital Daily.
If a person or group decides to nominate an individual for the naming rights, it can take years, but eventually a 15-person IAU committee votes on it, she says.
“I believe that somebody submitted my name,” says Gainor, who had no idea “this was in the hopper.” He found out during a meeting with his RASC colleagues last Wednesday.
“I sort of made a joke that my asteroid was headed straight to Earth,” he quips.
According to the IAU website, the sequential number before the name is assigned by the Minor Planet Center (MPC), an arm of the IAU.
For example, the full name of Gainor’s is (20041) Gainor = 1992 YH.
The year of discovery was 1992, while the YH indicates this asteroid was discovered between Dec 16 and 31, indicated by the Y, and was the 8th asteroid discovered in that period, indicated by the H).
Asteroids are remnants of the Big Bang—the scientific event, not the show—and are made of rock, metals, even water. There are three kinds: carbon-rich, metallic and rocky, and most of them are located in our solar system’s main Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter, 330-480 million km from the sun.
Asteroids can be real big, such as Vesta, the largest, at more than 500 km in diameter, but more often are small, only metres across.
They’re different from comets, which the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) describes as “dirty cosmic snowballs” consisting of ice, dust, rock and frozen gases, that hang out in the outer solar system, far from the sun where they remain frozen.
Comets are often 10 km in diameter, although last year, the Hubble Space Telescope confirmed a comet stretching 129 kilometres across. The comet, known as C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), is larger than the US’s smallest state, Rhode Island.
According to the CSA website, “Scientists believe that asteroids have not changed very much since the time they were formed, making them cosmic time capsules that can reveal how planets like our own world formed.”
(20041) Gainor was discovered by two Japanese astronomers in 1992, and until last week was known as 1992YH.
The asteroid is 5.167 km in diameter, rotates every 2.62 hours and takes more than four years to orbit the sun [see image below]. Right now, (20041) Gainor is more difficult than usual to see because it is on the other side of the sun from Earth, Gainor says.
“Even when the asteroid and the Earth are on the same side of the Sun some months from now, it will be very dim—around 13th magnitude. But I hope to get a chance to see it some time.”
Roche’s asteroid, (20035) LauriRoche, is 2.8 km in diameter. It was discovered the same year, 1992, at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., the North American hotbed for astronomy due to its clear dark desert skies and mountainous terrain, which limits light pollution.
Like (20041) Gainor, (20035) LauriRoche was spotted in the Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter.
“It’s pretty little and has a magnitude of 14 and a half, which means it’s pretty dim,” she says, (the lower the number the brighter its appearance).
“They’re pretty little when you think of these as being only like 2.8 km across, that’s not a very big rock up in space that’s way past Mars. But it’s OK, it’s up there, I know it’s there.”
A complete list of all named asteroids is available here.
The full explanation of the IAU’s naming convention is here.
The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is located on Observatory Hill, in Saanich.