Last May, a minor planet—also known as an asteroid—discovered by an amateur astronomer was officially named “Eliewiesel” in honor of 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Boston University Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74).
R. E. Jones, from Santa Clarita Valley, Calif., discovered the two-mile diameter minor planet in August 2004 from the small Francisquito Observatory. Jones, who provides catalogue information for NASA on potentially dangerous asteroids, was making photographic measurements of another near-Earth asteroid when he spotted the new minor planet in his photographs.
After six years of constant observations and calculations by professional observatories, including MIT’s LINEAR facility, in New Mexico, and Kitt Peak, in Arizona, Solar System object 2004PC27 was confirmed, and Jones was given the opportunity to name his discovery.
Jones chose the name, he says, because he admires Wiesel’s humanitarian work, especially against genocide. The name “Eliewiesel” was approved by the 15-member Committee on Small Body Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union in May. Wiesel joins a select group of well-known individuals who have had minor planets named in their honor, among them Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
BU Today spoke to Kenneth Janes, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of astronomy, about what the discovery of these minor planets means for the field of astronomy.
BU Today: What exactly is the object now known as Eliewiesel?
Janes: The formal name is “minor planet,” but they are commonly called asteroids, even by astronomers. There are some subdivisions, but those are primarily of technical interest. The use of the phrase “celestial bodies” is really just intended as poetic. One thinks of celestial bodies as being almost anything that can be seen in the sky.
Are many minor planets discovered each year?
The first minor planet (or asteroid) was discovered on January 1, 1801. Since then the number of minor planets discovered each year has grown gradually. Recently, with automated searches going on, the number has exploded. There are now roughly half a million known or suspected minor planets, although only about half of them have reasonably well-confirmed orbits. Even though most are found by a couple of major surveys, amateur astronomers discover considerable numbers of asteroids with their backyard telescopes.
How is a new discovery named?
The Minor Planet Center, headquartered at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, has been delegated by the IAU to manage record-keeping and other activities related to the minor planets. The tradition that has developed is that whoever discovers an asteroid gets to propose a name once the orbit has been confirmed, so the asteroid doesn’t get lost again. There is a committee of the IAU that ratifies the proposed name by the discoverer and makes it official.
About 15,000 asteroids have been officially named. Some of them are named after the discoverer or their spouse or kids.
What do these discoveries mean for the field of astronomy?
Given the huge numbers being found, astronomers pay little attention to most of them, unless there is something unusual about the object. One kind that does attract notice is the category known as “Earth-crossing” asteroids. These are ones whose orbits cross the orbit of the Earth, which means that potentially they could someday collide with the Earth. The goal of programs like LINEAR is to find all large Earth-crossing objects more than a few hundred meters across, which could potentially cause catastrophic damage.