The Jurassic Period
The careers of artists are often broken down into periods -- times when they concentrate on a particular subject or style or color. The astronomers who discover asteroids have periods, too -- times when they concentrate on particular names for their finds.
A couple of decades ago, for example, Belgian astronomer Eric Elst went through what might be called his "Jurassic" period. He'd already discovered dozens of asteroids. He'd named them for scientists, explorers, composers, and characters from mythology. And then he moved on to dinosaurs. For a half-dozen asteroids, he picked names from Brachiosaurus to Tyrannosaurus. Those fearsome creatures patrol the asteroid belt, beyond the orbit of Mars.
When an asteroid is discovered, it's given a provisional number. After its orbit is plotted, it's given a permanent number. The discoverer can add a proper name, as long as it meets certain guidelines.
And for the first few thousand asteroids, most of the names were pretty proper -- people who'd made great discoveries or inventions, or characters from the classics.
By the time the number of asteroids reached the 4,000s, though, astronomers were branching out a bit. That's when you find the Beatles -- asteroids Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr.
Today, about 15,000 asteroids have proper names -- from Monty Python and its members to Sean Connery and his alter ego, James Bond. But close to 200,000 don't have names, so the fun is just beginning.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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