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 . . .”