Mental Floss

Why Are So Many Asteroids Named For Celebrities?

Ethan Trex

You know the names of our solar system's planets, but you might not have realized that hundreds of asteroids and minor planets also revolve around the sun, and many of them are named after celebrities. Want a laugh? All six members of Monty Python have asteroids named in their honor; 9617 Grahamchapman even has its own moon. Prefer rocking? All four Beatles have their names on asteroids.

How does one end up with his or her name on an asteroid or other minor planet? Let's have a look at this odd, fun system.

Who comes up with the names?

According to the Minor Planet Center, which operates at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the best way to name a planet after your favorite celebrity, scientist, or writer is to discover a heavenly body yourself. If you discover a new object like an asteroid, you get to suggest a name to the International Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union. If the committee gives your proposed name the green light, you can name your asteroid in honor of your favorite figure skater, but we've got some bad news: 12413 Johnnyweir is already taken.

Can the discoverer name an object after anyone they want?

Almost, but there are a few rules that the Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature enforces.

Names have to be fewer than 16 characters, and they're preferably one word and pronounceable in some language. Furthermore, the proposed name can't be too offensive or similar to the name of an existing minor planet or planetary satellite.

Those aren't the only rules, though. The committee doesn't allow names of a purely commercial nature, and in its own words, "names of pet animals are discouraged." Finally, it's okay to name an object after someone who is known for his or her military or political activities, but you have to wait until 100 years after that person's death. Discoverers must also write a brief citation explaining why the chosen name is appropriate for an asteroid.

Is there any way to circumvent these rules?

How are the names approved?

Once the Minor Planet Center confirms that an object is indeed a new discovery, it assigns a number as a permanent designation. The discoverer can then submit a name for consideration. The 15 unpaid members of the Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature get together every two months to vote on whether or not submitted names are appropriate, and it sounds like a pretty laid back process. In 2003, Dr. Don Yeomans of the committee talked to a NASA publication and described the process like this: "Committee members usually provide one of three standard responses: yes, no or 'heck no.' Generally, majority rules but if we get three "˜heck no's' that is usually enough to kill a submission."

Are all asteroids and minor planets named?

Hardly. Although there are nearly a quarter of a million numbered minor planets, only 15,000 or so have received actual names.

What are some of the most interesting names?

Let's break this down by categories:

Fictional characters:
- 3552 Don Quixote
- 5049 Sherlock and 5050 Doctorwatson
- 9007 James Bond

- 12373 Lancearmstrong
- 128036 Rafaelnadal
- 6758 JesseOwens

- 6433 Enya
- 18132 Spector (Something's telling us an astronomer wishes he could have a mulligan on this one.)
- 3834 Zappafrank
- 23990 Springsteen

- 6984 Lewiscarroll
- 3412 Kafka
- 7232 Nabokov
- 25399 Vonnegut
- 25924 Douglasadams

Other Notables:
- 8661 Ratzinger (For Pope Benedict XVI)
- 5535 Annefrank
- 4487 Pocahontas