An 'out-of-this-world' honor: Asteroids named for 2 ASU faculty members

Monday, August 4, 2014
by Nikki Cassis

How would you like to have an asteroid named after you? For two Arizona State University professors, that’s exactly what has happened! Phil Christensen and Dave Williams are planetary geologists.  They are also faculty members in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. The "out-of-this-world" honor gives them even more reason to be gazing at the night sky.

You know the names of our solar system’s planets. But you might now know about the asteroids and minor planets. There are thousands of them revolving around the sun. They also have names.

Asteroid (10461) Dawilliams was discovered on December 6, 1978. E. Bowell and A. Warnock spotted it from Palomar Observatory. It orbits about in the Main Belt. That’s an asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Hollywood loves Earth-smashing asteroid blockbusters. But Williams has no worries that “his” asteroid will make doomsday headlines.

“It’s very unlikely that it will hit Earth, as it is in a stable orbit in the Main Belt,” explains Williams.

Also honored with an asteroid named for his work is Christensen. He is the instrument scientist for a mission to asteroid Bennu. He was also a lead team member for NASA projects. They include the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and Mars Exploration Rovers.

The asteroid is named (90388) Philchristensen. Like Williams’, it too is a Main Belt asteroid. It is relatively small – approximately 4.6 kilometers (2.8 miles) across. It was discovered November 24, 2003 by the Catalina Sky Survey. It also poses no risk of collision with Earth.

“My research has long focused on Mars,” says Christensen. “But my broader interests involve all solar system bodies. I’ve spent the last several years working on an asteroid mission. I really appreciate this honor.”

What’s in a name?

Having a namesake in the sky is no small honor. Unlike the selling of star names over the Internet, the naming of asteroids is serious business. It is presided over by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). That’s an organization of professional astronomers.

When an asteroid is discovered, it gets a temporary name. It involves the year of discovery, two letters and sometimes more numbers. If scientists can predict its orbit, the asteroid receives a permanent number. Then it becomes eligible for naming.

Many objects end up being named after astronomers and other scientists. But some discoverers have named the object after celebrities. All four Beatles have their names on asteroids. There is even one named after James Bond – Asteroid (9007) James Bond.

“I was very surprised to receive this honor from the astronomical community. Only a select few of the Dawn at Vesta participating scientists were so honored,” said Williams. His work mapping the surface of volcanoes has been important.  It helps create geologic maps of planetary bodies. These include Mars, Io and Vesta.

Christensen and Williams share this honor with other in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The following all have namesakes in the sky:

• Erik Asphaug, professor – Asteroid (7939) Asphaug
• Jim Bell, professor – Asteroid (8146) Jimbell
• Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Foundation Professor and School of Earth and Space Exploration director – Asteroid (8252) Elkins-Tanton
• Ronald Greeley, professor emeritus – Asteroid (30785) Greeley, and Greeley’s Haven (on Mars)
• Carleton Moore, Regents’ Professor Emeritus – Asteroid (5046) Carletonmoore
• Sumner Starrfield, Regents’ Professor – Asteroid (19208) Starrfield
• Meenakshi Wadhwa, professor – Asteroid (8356) Wadhwa