The target of NASA's Deep Space 1 mission now has a name: 9969 Braille, after Louis Braille, the inventor of the language system that enables sightless people to read. Astronomer Eleanor Helin, lead discoverer of the asteroid formerly known as 1992 KD, selected Braille from hundreds of suggestions submitted to The Planetary Society in a worldwide contest to name the object.
On July 28, Deep Space 1 (DS1) will encounter asteroid Braille. This is the first of NASA's New Millennium missions, which are testing revolutionary technologies that could take humanity farther and faster into our solar system. Validating ion propulsion and autonomous navigation systems are among the primary goals of this mission; investigating the nature of asteroid Braille is frosting on the cake.
Kerry Babcock of Port Orange, Florida submitted the winning name. His citation reads: "Louis Braille invented the Braille language so those who could not see could obtain knowledge and explore through the 'written' word. Likewise, asteroid Braille provides knowledge about our universe and its origin to the people of Earth, who through Deep Space 1, are also able to explore and discover what previously they could not 'see.'"
Mr. Babcock is a software engineer at the Kennedy Space Center. A few years ago, he began to learn to transcribe the braille system and was very impressed with Louis Braille's achievement. Mr. Babcock gave his daughter the name "Braille," so in a sense it is her namesake as well that is now traveling through the solar system.
Dr. Helin and The Planetary Society chose the theme "Inventors" for the naming contest to recognize the nature of the Deep Space 1 mission: it is a technology demonstration mission, not primarily a mission of scientific discovery. Its purpose is to test new technologies that will make future scientific missions easier, more efficient and less costly and thus enable NASA to fly more missions of exploration in the future.
"Inventions are the products of the human mind," said Dr. Helin. "It is particularly appropriate to honor Braille for his invention of a means of communication with the minds of humans who are otherwise limited in their ability to 'see' the outside world. Spacecraft such as DS1, in their own way, also provide a means for humans to 'see' other worlds."
Louis Braille (1809-1852) invented the raised-dot alphabet that enables sightless people to read by sense of touch. Blinded by a childhood accident, Braille was sent to a special school where he was introduced to early, but unwieldy, raised-dot methods of translating printed words into symbols readable with fingertips. The braille alphabet, using more efficient combinations of six dots, revolutionized reading for those without sight.
The Planetary Society asked people to suggest names through its website, http://planetary.org. The Society's staff made a preliminary selection of candidates, and Dr. Helin and team member Ken Lawrence made the final selection. It is the discoverers' privilege to name the object, subject to the approval of the Small Bodies Naming Committee of the International Astronomical Union. The committee has given its official approval to the name Braille.
Dr. Louis D. Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society, said, "To have the winning entry in our contest be such an interesting and thoughtful choice is rewarding. It captures the spirit of discovery."
Dr. Friedman added, "At The Planetary Society, we believe it is very important to involve members of the public in space missions. Giving them the opportunity to name a target of exploration is an exciting and concrete way to get the public involved."
When it reaches asteroid Braille, DS1 will try to determine the asteroid's size, shape, mass, volume, and density. Its elemental and mineralogical composition will greatly interest scientists, who will also be hoping to learn whether this asteroid is a large solid rock floating in space or a conglomeration of smaller rocks traveling as a group, bound together by gravity.
The asteroid formerly known as 1992 KD was discovered May 27, 1992 by Dr. Helin and Ken Lawrence at the Palomar Observatory during the NASA-funded Planet-Crossing Asteroid Survey. Asteroid Braille orbits the Sun in the neighborhoods of Mars and Earth. It is not a large world, having an estimated diameter of one to five kilometers.
Dr. Helin is eagerly awaiting the first close look at one of her 25-year-old program's discoveries.