Emily LakdawallaFeb 04, 2014

Naming asteroids in honor of Nelson Mandela

When Nelson Mandela died on December 5 it occurred to me to check whether there was an asteroid named for him. When I found out there wasn't, I tweeted that someone ought to fix the oversight. At that moment I didn't realize (or, more truthfully, had forgotten) that there was a good reason he hadn't been so honored: one of the rules about asteroid naming is that you can't name asteroids for politicians until 100 years after their deaths. Mandela was a man of many accomplishments beyond politics but as one of my astronomer friends pointed out to me at the time, "I think it'd be hard to avoid 'President of South Africa' in the first line of any citation." Still, Rainer Kresken volunteered an asteroid discovered by him and Matthias Busch, and after discussion with several astronomers we decided to try and see if they'd bend the rules. I wrote a citation and Rainer submitted a naming request to the Minor Planet Center, but it was turned down, which didn't surprise anyone, really, but it was a disappointment.

I thought about what to do. It occurred to me that if we couldn't honor Mandela that way, the next best thing to do would be to ask the question: who else is carrying on his work outside of the political sphere, as activists for racial equality, human rights, and social justice? Mandela was obviously not alone in this work; there must be others, I just don't know their names. Instead of honoring the past leader, we can honor his cause, and raise awareness of those who must continue in his absence. Asteroids can, after all, be named for living people. But it wasn't easy for me to find out who those people were -- there's lots of information online about politicians, but much less about people outside politics. I did some Google searching and found a couple of names, but it was hard going; this is far beyond my area of expertise. And then it was December and the American Geophysical Union meeting and then the holidays and I got busy and dropped it.

February is Black History Month in the U.S., so my Twitter feed is filling with stories of notable people of color, and that reminded me of the idea again. I thought maybe I could ask the Internet for help, crowdsourcing some suggestions. I also thought I could make things easier by broadening the search a bit. I'd still like to pursue the original idea of honoring Mandela by finding out names of people working in South Africa to improve race relations, fight poverty, and improve public health there. But I thought, while I was doing that, I could invite people to think of others in their own communities who have done, or are doing, work in the same spirit.

This isn't meant to be a contest to name a single asteroid. It's a project to generate a list, hopefully a long list, of names of people who might be deserving of such an honor for their work to promote the dignity, health, and education of people who are born without such privileges. I'll compile and share the list, then Rainer and other interested astronomers who have asteroids to name can draw from that list, if they like. There are thousands and thousands of unnamed asteroids.

I welcome suggestions from any and all comers. If you're interested in asteroid naming rules, here's some info on the subject. And here's the list of already-named asteroids. By the way, there is an asteroid named for Martin Luther King (2305 King), but I just realized that although there is an asteroid named Parks, it is not named for Rosa Parks, and I can't find anything in the solar system that's been named for her. Today would have been her 101st birthday. I think I'll put her on the list. But that's an easy name; I want to hear about the people I don't know, who are carrying her spirit forward today.

You can suggest names in comments on this blog post, or by sending me an email, or by tweeting a suggestion at me. I need the person's name (and PLEASE check that your spelling of the name is correct), and a short description or a link to further information about them -- a website, a newspaper article, something that establishes who they are and what they do (or did), to help in the writing of a proper citation. Who should be honored in the sky for their work to try to make this world a little better for everyone? I'll set an arbitrary goal of the end of February to generate this list, but there's no reason it couldn't be added to, later.

WISE spacecraft's first asteroid discovery after 2013 reactivation
An unnamed near-Earth asteroid The sky is full of asteroids with names like 2013 YP139. Let's name a few of them for some deserving people.Image: NASA / JPL

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