SCS Student Has Asteroid Named for Him

Posted: June 29, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

It pays to know the right people, School of Computational Sciences (SCS) PhD student Gary Page discovered firsthand. Page’s friend, D. S. Dixon, is an amateur astronomer who discovered and documented a three-mile-wide asteroid, known in space parlance as a “minor planet.” As a token of their friendship, Dixon named the asteroid after his friend. Formerly labeled “(71556),” the chunk of space matter is now officially known as “Page.”

It turns out that it’s quite rare for an asteroid to be named, Page found after doing some research. On the official list of more than 85,000 known asteroids, only a fraction have been named; most are known just by a number. Technically, the person who discovers an asteroid is entitled to name it, although etiquette doesn’t permit the discoverer to name it after him or herself, Page explains. The likely reason that more minor planets aren’t named is that it requires going through a somewhat laborious process. An application must be made to the Committee on Small Body Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union within 10 years of the discovery. The committee, made up of professional astronomers from around the globe, reviews the suggested name to see that it does not have more than 16 characters and that it is preferably one word, pronounceable in some language, inoffensive, and not too similar to an existing name of a minor planet. In the case of the Page asteroid, the process took about six months.

Page asteroid
The Page asteroid is somewhere inside the red circle in this enhanced photo.
Courtesy Gary Page

The process of documenting a minor planet’s discovery is far more complicated, and in some cases, can take decades. It involves seeing the object more than once, predicting its orbit, and determining its approximate size and placement in the cosmos. Dixon discovered the Page asteroid in 2000 from the Jornada Observatory in Las Cruces, N.M.

Page is quick to point out that “his” little planet isn’t one of the so-called killer asteroids that might come crashing into Earth. “It’s further out than Mars, so it’s not likely to hit us,” he says.

A defense analyst with Booz Allen who is working on his dissertation research with SCS Professor John Wallin, Page says “this asteroid business” has resulted in Wallin, Dixon, and himself collaborating on some research. “We’re writing a paper now, dealing with utilizing asteroids with eccentric orbits to probe the mass distribution in the outer solar system. This represents an outgrowth of some research I’ve been working on with Professor Wallin and appears to represent a completely new idea. It should have a significant impact on the asteroid targets chosen for close observation in the future.”

In the meantime, Page has taken his newfound fame in stride. “It’s great fun,” he says, “kind of an honor.”

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