How to Assign a Name to an Asteroid?

Joe Rao's story can help us understand how we can assign our name to a celestial object like an asteroid or a star

Joe Rao, a veteran meteorologist and eclipse chaser, has served as an instructor and guest lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. To honor his dedication as a science communicator, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) working group has recently designated the asteroid 1991 OY with his name “200009 Joerao”.

Asteroid 1991 OY

Discovered at the Palomar Observatory on July 18, 1991, by astronomer Henry E. Holt, who was likely using the 48-inch Samuel Oschin telescope. “Probably Holt was photographing a specific region of the sky while tracking stars. The asteroid, moving along its orbit through space, created a short trail in the photographic image” stated Rao.

Asteroids are generally cataloged based on the year of their discovery and assigned one or more letters according to the month and day of discovery. Currently, the number of known asteroids is 1,298,388. 1991 OY was number 20009.

An asteroid can be named after someone or something. The process begins when an individual or organization submits a brief citation listing relevant facts about the potential nickname to be assigned to the asteroid. This citation is then evaluated by a committee of 15 individuals from the International Astronomical Union.

Naming Procedure

“I found out that the individuals responsible for naming 1991 OY after me were Edwin and Imelda Aguirre. They are devoted astronomy enthusiasts living in New England. I’ve known them for about 20 years, and they contacted a longtime friend of mine, astronomer Dr. Glenn Schneider. Edwin and Imelda felt that I also deserved to have an asteroid named after me, given my many years of astronomy outreach”. At that point, the citation was submitted to the IAU for final assessment.

Announcement was made in the Working Group Small Bodies Nomenclature (WGSBN) bulletin on Monday, July 3rd (ref.). “When I received the news, we were planning a family gathering at my home to celebrate my son’s third wedding anniversary, my daughter’s birthday, and also Independence Day. The asteroid being named was like the icing on the cake!” Rao added.

“I am so honored and thrilled that, with the help of Edwin, Imelda, and Dan, and with the blessing of the IAU, I now have my name assigned to asteroid, a celestial object forever”.

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