Name That Star!

When our writer set out to hang his name upon a celestial body, he never imagined he would have to navigate such an Earthbound bureaucracy

By Alan Burdick|Tuesday, February 01, 2000
In the beginning-well, right after the beginning-was the cosmos: stars, galaxies, nebulae, novas, planets, minor planets (the fancy term for asteroids), comets, and satellites, more and more numerous and varied, as humans and telescopes and astronomy clubs evolved to observe them. Soon names were needed to keep all of the celestial objects straight-Mars, Jupiter, Betelgeuse, Shoemaker-Levy-and eventually an international body, the International Astronomical Union, was needed to record the names. By and by, this body divided itself into various sub-bodies, various committees, teams, and task groups, each one responsible for approving and rejecting names of cosmic elements according to their class and a widening body of rules: So many sub-bodies and rules came about that at last an individual was appointed to remember them all. His name is Brian G. Marsden. 

“I’m the associate director for planetary sciences at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director of the Minor Planets Center,” Marsden said one afternoon in his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The Minor Planets Center is involved with orbits of minor planets and for naming minor planets. This is done through a committee called the Small Bodies Names Committee. We have 11 members. I receive the information and pass it on to the others for judging.” Marsden is also director of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, the authority for naming comets. Commission Twenty, he informed me, runs the Minor Planets Center, but Commission Six runs the Central Bureau. A third arm of the International Astronomical Union, the Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature, oversees the naming of features on satellites. “Just for completeness, the International Astronomical Union is involved in naming things outside the solar system; that’s done through Commission Five. Ah, yes, we need another group for naming the committees!”

Marsden and his bevy of committees rarely name things themselves. That privilege belongs to the discoverer. An astronomer spots a new comet or asteroid, proposes a name, and sends it to Marsden, who navigates the channels of onomatology—the science of nomenclature bylaws and regulation—and returns with thumb up or thumb down. He is an appellative catalyst, if you will, the keeper of the gate. Anyone wishing to add a name to the cosmic script, to achieve immortality, or at least get a dozen zeros closer to it, must pass through him. And so it was that I found myself in his office one bright day recently. My own time on this Earth is short, so I was blunt with Marsden.

“Frankly,” I said, “I’d like to see about having something named for me.”

Marsden works on garden street, in Building A of the astrophysics center, a smallish brick structure designed in the architecturally anonymous style of the 1950s: concrete walls, fluorescent lights, granite-pink linoleum floors, steel doors that slam behind you when you venture from one corridor to the next. The inhabitants of this system scurry about and are mostly of a type: male, pallid, thin, young verging on ageless. What remains of their hair is as disheveled as their cramped offices. Marsden, fairly luminous by contrast, wears slacks and a starched oxford shirt. He combs his white hair neatly across his head. His manner is avuncular, his cheeks quick to flush. If he is not animating a point with his hands, he is chuckling and leaning back in his swivel chair, fingers entwined and resting on his rounding middle. When I stopped by, he was sitting behind a green steel desk awash in paper.

“I figure I spend 20 hours a week on names alone,” he said cheerily. “An inordinate amount of time is spent on something that has no scientific value whatsoever.”

As Marsden soon made clear, the rules that govern the naming of different celestial bodies render me outright ineligible for certain categories. Cross stars off your list, he said: They don’t even get names anymore. There are too many. Not long ago I was mailed an enticing brochure from a company in Illinois called the International Star Registry. For a modest fee, I could name a star for myself, my sweetheart, even my favorite sales agent. I would receive a parchment certificate with the name and coordinates of my star and a detailed chart with my star circled in red. Best of all, the brochure added, “Because these star names are copyrighted with their telescopic coordinates in the book Your Place in the Cosmos, future generations may identify the star name in the registry and, using a telescope, locate the actual star in the sky.”

“It’s a scam,” Marsden said. “Astronomers don’t recognize those names. The Library of Congress doesn’t recognize those names. They’re misleading the public. I’ve seen a few certificates giving the positions of the star—I’ve checked and there wasn’t a star there. Either they’re making up star positions, or they’re not interpreting the charts correctly.”

Planets, too, I could forget about. The known ones are already spoken for. And the ones now being found in distant galaxies—such as a November discovery, a planet orbiting star HD 209458 in the constellation Pegasus—are assigned dry strings of numbers and letters. “Things may change,” Marsden offered, “but I don’t see any sort of clamoring going on in the International Astronomical Union.”

Likewise, the rules governing naming of surface features of the planets and their satellites—as spelled out in Appendix 6 of the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature—pointedly exclude hoi polloi. Valleys on Mercury must be named for radio telescope facilities. Craters on Europa must be named for Celtic gods and heroes. The features of Miranda, a satellite of Uranus, must be named for characters and places from William Shakespeare’s plays; those of Mimas, a satellite of Saturn, for people and places from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (Baines translation). Everything on Venus, except for one rather phallic feature, is named for a goddess or a famous woman. Conceivably I could have a crater on the Moon named for me, Marsden said, but I must first become A) famous, and B) dead.

Of all the names in the universe, those of asteroids occupy Marsden the most. The very term “asteroid” rankles him. “Minor planet” more neatly captures the fact that the objects in question, though often as small as a half mile in diameter, can be as large as—and should include—Pluto, though Marsden has yet to gain unanimous acceptance of this view. Reports of new comets and minor planets stream into Marsden’s office. He confirms the calculations, and when the orbits are fixed (which requires a lengthy period of observation, sometimes over years), the object is assigned a number and its coordinates are announced in the Minor Planets Circular. Marsden publishes a new circular every day or two, sometimes twice a day. He extracted a stack of papers from a stack of stacks: November’s circulars announcing some 475 newly numbered objects.

Once numbered, a minor planet is free to be named by its discoverer, who must then abide by a few guidelines. “We don’t like to make the names too long,” Marsden said. “We limit them to 16 characters, we like them to be one word, we like them to be pronounceable, though that’s a little hard sometimes. The name should not be in bad taste or obscene.” He plopped a thick book on his desk and opened it: The Dictionary of Minor Planets, containing the names and biographies of 7,000 asteroids discovered between 1801 and 1996. There is a Colemanhawkins (number 8,147) up there, an Annefrank (5,535), a Zappafrank (3,834), a Leonardmartin (9,082), and a Martinhoffman (9,521), even an orbiting Robyn, named for the wife of the former president of I.A.U. Commission 20. Minor planet 1,877 bears the name Marsden.

It’s getting harder for the Minor Planets Center to keep up. The pace of discoveries increases geometrically: Telescopes are more powerful than ever, and even amateur viewers have access to computers and software that can automatically sweep the sky for signs of asteroids. “Number 10,000 was numbered on March 2, 1999,” Marsden said. “Now we’re up to 12,000 or something. How long is it going to take for the next 10,000? Probably about five years.”

This struck me as good news. “So, if I wanted to have something named for me, an asteroid would be a good bet?” Marsden chuckled awkwardly, then brightened with an idea. The Dictionary of Minor Planets was still open on his desk, and he began flipping through it rapidly. He found the entry he wanted and showed it to me: minor planet 3,505, known as Byrd. “Ah, see? You already have one. That is the way you spell it?” Um, no.

His brow furrowed, he turned to the dictionary index. “Burdett, Burdigala . . .” No one had named a minor planet Burdick. I was flattered by Marsden’s apparent disappointment. He checked his computer database for any last-minute entries.

“We don’t have one at the moment,” he said at last. “I don’t see any obstacle.”

Having determined that the vessel of my immortality would most likely be an asteroid, I turned to the next question: Which one?

“As I say,” Marsden said, “usually the names are proposed by the discoverer, so you should meet a discoverer somewhere. That’s your best bet. Or you could be a discoverer. It’s not considered good to name an asteroid for oneself. If you discover a comet, though, the comet would be named for you. That might be even better, because comets are rarer; being bright, they get in the newspapers all the time. Look at the mileage that’s met Hale-Bopp since it was discovered in 1995.”

The economics of discovery, I quickly discovered, were prohibitive. Panning for asteroids would require a 12- or 24-inch telescope, at a cost upward of $10,000, plus another $1,000 for the software—and still I couldn’t name the object for myself. Timothy Ferris, who hunts visually for supernovas in his spare time, suggested that finding comets doesn’t always require powerful or expensive equipment—just a lifestyle change. “You have to live a kind of Norwegian lighthouse-keeper life, up well before dawn night after night,” he cautioned. “You can look at night, too, but dawn is better. Only a tenth as many astronomers get up then.”

Alas, I will never be among them. Better, I thought, to approach an established astronomer. “It’s . . . done,” Marsden said hesitantly. “There are professionals who’ve got several hundred asteroids to spare.” I asked if perhaps he could refer me to such a person.

“Ahhhhhh,” he said, coughing out a laugh. “Well, there’s a gentleman in Arizona . . .”

Edward Bowell at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, is probably the most prolific asteroid hunter working today. He has discovered more than 500 minor planets in the past 20 years, adding three or four new ones a month, and has bestowed names on more than 400: names of colleagues, old friends, places he’s been, even one for Carl Sagan. Would he name a minor planet for me?

“I’d have to flat-out tell you no,” Bowell said. “I’ve never heard of you. However, if you wish to contribute to my research at a level that interests me . . .”

And what level would that be?

“Oh, I think we’d be talking thousands of dollars. . . .”

I rang James Scotti at the University of Arizona. In 1997, Scotti garnered front-page headlines with the discovery of a very large asteroid hurtling near enough to Earth to have a marginal chance of hitting it. The asteroid languishes under the temporary title 1997 XF11; until its orbit is accurately determined, probably sometime in 2002, Scotti can only entertain suggestions for names. “The ones I’ve heard so far”—including a zinger aimed at Marsden—“I haven’t been so happy with,” Scotti said. How about using my name? He declined: “Nice try, though.”

My last call was to Tom Gehrels at the University of Arizona. During an astronomical survey in the 1970s, Gehrels and two Dutch colleagues discovered some 1,600 asteroids, more than anyone else ever—a distinction to which Gehrels seemed totally oblivious when I mentioned it. “Really? I thought somebody would have passed me by now.”

Gehrels disparaged the slide toward pedestrian asteroid names: “Cats, dogs, and mistresses. I wish they’d put a stop to it.” He remains disappointed that the Small Bodies Names Committee rejected his proposal to name an asteroid after Polish leader Lech Walesa. (According to the rules, an asteroid can’t be named for a political or military figure until 100 years after his or her death. “Hitler and Stalin are out,” Marsden told me, “at least until 2040 or 2050. One wants to keep things reasonably friendly.”)

I asked Gehrels why people might want to have an asteroid named for them.

“You tell me,” he said. “Would you like an asteroid named after you?”

I thought this was a direct question, but it was merely rhetorical.

“It’s a permanent thing,” Gehrels went on, “at least until the end of the solar system. What’s that, 5 billion years?”

Now that you’ve mentioned it, I told Gehrels, I would like an asteroid named for me. Do you have an extra? He dismissed me with an audible wave of his hand.

“Ask Brian. He’s the master of all this.”

I was disconsolate. the days of the gods are over. Man is discovering everything. The divine icons are paling. In the void between Jupiter and Mars, asteroids called Hubertreeves and Cindijon now take flight. And yet the heavens are as exclusive as ever. Perhaps Bowell and Gehrels were right: Why me? Who am I?

Marsden was comforting. “Obviously there are different contributions that people make, people who do a good job at what they’re doing,” he said. “Of course, that could apply to a wife. That’s still frowned upon by some people. I think there should be moderation: The astronomer that wants to name asteroids for every relative he can think of, that’s a bit much.” He looked at me through his silver-rimmed glasses. “You’ve written other articles? Half a dozen articles or whatever—and getting better all the time, I’m sure, moving into other areas. I don’t have any problem with that.”

Still the doors were closed to me, for lack of opportunity if not merit. I had no connections; I was no one’s pet, hurtling through the ever-after like the mummified cats of Tutankhamen. I was preparing to leave Marsden’s office when, almost to himself, he said: “If a minor planet hasn’t been named in 10 years after numbering, it becomes fair game for naming.” Of course, he added quickly, there is a chain of command. If the discoverer is deceased, the right to name typically falls to a colleague, or to another observer critical to determining the object’s orbit. But even then, Marsden said, sometimes there are orphans, nameless celestial waifs left on the committee’s doorstep. Sometimes they need names. “It’s been known to happen,” Marsden said.

He suggested I send him a short note about myself: some biographical information, my accomplishments, 50 words max. “We can hold it on reserve, or use it soon, or whatever.” I offered him the following:

Minor planet # [fill in the blank]: Alanburdick.

Named in honor of Alan Burdick

(1965 - ), a writer and student of the natural world. He is the author of numerous popular magazine articles, including one about his efforts to get something in the universe named after him.

Who knows if my number will come up, or if it does, what number it will be. I picture it now: a streak of light and me clinging to its tail, a cosmic straphanger.

“It’s not impossible that this could be arranged,” Marsden told me as I left. “I wouldn’t put that in the article, however. We don’t go by quid pro quo.” He glanced in the general direction of the Powers That Be, wherever they are. “That sort of thing isn’t appreciated.”

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