There are a lot of asteroids flying around in the Solar System. Nearly half a million have been identified and numbered. Not quite as many have been named, because to name an asteroid its orbit needs to be precisely known, and to do that you need to keep an eye on it for a while. Once that’s done, the discoverer gets to propose a name to the International Astronomical Union and then they get to approve it.
There are a few robotic telescopes around the world that scan the skies for potentially hazardous asteroids, and they find a lot of new asteroids. The Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (or LINEAR) program is one of these — they have two telescopes in New Mexico, and since September 15, 2011 they’ve discovered 231,082 new asteroids. They can’t name them all, so they’ve partnered with the Society for Science & the Public to name minor planets after students in fifth through twelfth grades and their teachers. That’s pretty cool.
The IAU has a few naming guidelines that are pretty arbitrary: no more than 16 characters long; preferably one word; pronounceable (in some language); written using Latin characters; non-offensive; and not a name that’s close to the existing names of other minor planets.
Now, you probably have some kind of opinion of the IAU (probably along the lines of “they’re a bunch of idiots for not letting Pluto be a planet”) but generally they do a good job of the sort of nonsense that comes along with attaching an arbitrary name to a hunk of rock flying around out there. And really, the names for the overwhelming majority of asteroids don’t matter to anybody but their discoverer and whoever they’re named after. I could give two figs if asteroid 11955 was named after my astronomy lab instructor at UVic or not (well, it is, and that’s actually kind of cool).
Anyhow, the November 2015 Minor Planet Circular came out. Some of the names were from middle and high school students who got their names on asteroids through LINEAR. Some of the names went to relatives of the discoverer (like (16503) Ayato, named after the discoverer’s grandchild), plants ((15736) Hamanasu is named after a Japanese rose and a sleeper train, and (7613) ‘akikiki is named after a critically endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper), or cities and countries ((110295) Elcalafate and (10072) Uruguay). They’re all very nice names, and in the grand scheme of things mean very little.
Unless, of course, you’re a curmudgeon. In which case you would say things like “such names are not suitable for asteroids” or “it seriously devalues the significance of naming”.
Listen. There are already thousands of named asteroids. Other than the few large ones (Ceres, Pallas, Vesta) nobody really gives a shit what an asteroid is named. They’re pretty much already devalued.
But, and this is a really big but, they’re not devalued for the person that asteroid is named after. The kids who have asteroids named after them weren’t just picked out of a hat, they were all finalists in math and science competitions. They’re doing awesome things in math, science, and engineering, and they get an asteroid named after them for doing those kick-ass things. If you’re a middle or high schooler, wouldn’t that be awesome? You get an official document and everything, and there’s this rock flying around out there with your name on it! That’s really fucking cool. And kids should be celebrated for it!
But some grump on a mailing list thinks that your asteroid is “devaluing” the names of the others. You know what? Fuck that guy.
And I just want to call out one curmudgeon in particular: P. Clay Sherrod. In two messages (one and two) he said this:
Everyone gets recognition today, even for failure; trophies for kids on losing teams, and recognitions for “heroes” who really just happen to be in the right place at the right time.
I think where the line should be drawn is when asteroids are being named after inanimate objects: cartoon characters, movie characters, video games, pop songs trivia characters and even places.
The discovery process is part of the growth of humanity and it is, and should be, celebrated by assigning names of those who we – no matter what stature – admire, respect and love.
Naming minor planets after fictitious movie villains and heroes, fossils, plants and places remove the true involvement of human discovery, the process by which our civilization grows.
Thus, the name Kayleigh serves a huge purpose in the advancement of the human race. In someone’s mind, naming a rock after Kaleycuoco makes sense and it is fitting for a “real person.” On the other hand, “Sheldoncooper” is something that really does not exist and should not be immortalized by the hand of discovery.
What self-serving bollocks. His first quote was clearly directed to all of the school children that got asteroids named after them because, after all, they’re just part of the bunch of losers who get recognition for failure, right? Why even bring that up in this context? (I note that there’s no asteroid with “Sherrod” in the name, maybe that has something to do with it.) He’s picking on a group of kids who are definitely not losers and why, because a rock in space doesn’t have a name he agrees with? Fuck that.
And his last quote comes after another member of the mailing list said that he named an asteroid after his granddaughter Kayleigh, who died at the age of 13. Without the story, this asteroid probably would have fallen under the “recognition for everybody” umbrella, so Sherrod had to come up with some nonsense about “growth of humanity” to save some face.
And then the line about “Sheldoncooper” (which is an asteroid named after the Big Bang Theory character) because god forbid we name an asteroid after a fictional character. Yes, there is an asteroid named Sheldoncooper, which I think is a nicer name than its previous name 2007 SP14, even if I think Big Bang Theory is crap.
But TV shows are bad, movies are bad, because… I don’t know, pop culture can’t be a part of SERIOUS NAMING BUSINESS? You know who else wrote pop culture and still got astronomical objects named after his fictional characters? WILLIAM FUCKING SHAKESPEARE. Shit, he got a moon named after a MAID. Honest to god Margaret has like sixty lines in Much Ado About Nothing and she gets a moon named after her. Meanwhile P. Clay Sherrod complains about a teenager doing some fucking mad science getting a minor asteroid named after her?