How to get an asteroid named after you

When I was trying to find people to comment about my asteroid story on The Wireless, I put out a call on Twitter to see if there were any amateur astronomers out there. Shaun put me in touch with this chap called Warwick Kissling who is one of a few kiwis who have asteroids named after him. Warwick’s comments didn’t quite make it into my article, but — once again — I thought it was a cool little story about NZ’s space history.

I asked Warwick how he came to have an asteroid named after him:

“Well, to cut a long story short, I just calculated its orbit!

“But the real story is of course more complicated – I’ve been in the astronomical ‘community’ in NZ for many years, and have always been fascinated by what we call ‘celestial mechanics’, which is basically the study of the motions of celestial objects – including, planets, asteroids, satellites. This turns out to be very mathematical, but that’s OK, because I’m a mathematician!

“Some of my ‘astronomical’ friends were hunting for new asteroids in the 1980s from Mt John Observatory near Lake Tekapo (and actually still are – Alan Gilmore & Pam Kilmartin – Alan is on RNZ every month or two with Brian Crump) and they used to send me their observations (by snail mail) and I’d ‘crunch’ the numbers on a handheld programmable calculator and send the back ‘the orbit’. This is basically a set of numbers which you can use to work out where in the sky that asteroid will be at any time in the future… within limits.

“The problem with new discoveries is that you don’t have a GOOD orbit, and it is very common for new objects (as we call them) to get lost.. Basically what I did was calculate the orbit of an object my friends identified that was good enough for it to be found again after some time – maybe a month or two, I cannot remember exactly. When THAT happens, you can then get a much better orbit, and then you basically will never lose that object.

“The International Astronomical Union has some rules which govern what happens next – firstly the asteroid is given an official number when it has been observed enough and its orbit is well enough known, and then the discovers have the choice of providing a name for these objects.

“This is where ‘my’ asteroid comes in – its ‘official’ name is (4409) Kissling. Somewhere on the web there is a list of all the official names, and numbers too – there are far more numbered objects which dont have names! There are also quite a few asteroids named after NZers – again, there may be a list somewhere, but I haven’t looked.

“Fortunately, there is NO chnace of this coming close to the Earth – it is ‘safely’ in the asteroid belt, over three times further from the Sun than the Earth is, and never comes much closer.”


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