WRITING IN THE SKIES

How did Frank Zappa become an asteroid and Jane Austen a crater? Norman Miller discovers who gets star billing in space and how to get a comet to carry your name
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The Independent Culture
There's NO escape from Jane Austen - with Emma soon to hit our television screens and Sense and Sensibility now in the video shops - but don't count on turning your gaze heavenward for relief: she's up there, too, staring back at you from the surface of Venus.

Austen was one of the women whose names were given to places on Venus, following the discovery of thousands of new surface features by the Magellan space probe, which mapped the planet in detail between 1990 and 1993. Astronomical tradition demands that features on Venus are named after women, thus Austen found a celestial home as a crater, alongside Fossey (after Diane Fossey of Gorillas In The Mist), Kaikilani (first female ruler of Hawaii) and Akiko (a Japanese poet). Many of the names came from the public after the Magellan team ran out of ideas and appealed for help.

History has provided various formulae for naming features on almost every planet and satellite in the solar system. Dead scientists sit reflectively on the Moon, while famous creative types still suffer for their art in the burning hell of Mercury, along with ships of discovery. The small craters of Mars are named after small towns of the world; Celtic gods and heroes rule the roost on Jupiter's moon Europa, and Saturn's satellites are a literary who's who.

Astronomical exploration, however, is always throwing up fresh naming challenges - from the many asteroids discovered each year to new moons around the major planets. In 1986, for example, the Voyager 2 probe found no fewer than 10 satellites around Uranus to add to the five already known, a discovery which added a cast list of names from Shakespeare to the heavens, from Cordelia to Puck.

The task of officially naming a wide range of celestial objects falls to the Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which christens hundreds of objects every year from its home at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Asteroids (also known as minor planets) provide a constant challenge in the name game, thanks to the sheer number being discovered, and about a fifth of the 6,500-plus minor planets whose orbits have been accurately calculated (the criterion which earns them first a number then eventually a name) still remain unchristened. The rate of discovery - 384 minor planets were numbered in 1990 alone - maintains the pressure.

It was so much easier in the old days. When the Italian astronomer Guiseppe Piazzi discovered the first minor planet in 1801 it was only the eighth planetary object known in our solar system. But even naming that caused problems, with Piazzi's initial decision to name his rock Ceres Ferdinandea, in honour of the Sicilian ruler Ferdinand IV, prompting others to choose alternative names, such as Hera, until everyone settled on plain old Ceres, after the Roman goddess of harvests. This classical female choice set the trend for naming the first 500 or so minor planets until the middle of the 19th century. Then, with classical names running short, heated debate broke out among astronomers demanding the classical tradition continue, and those who accused the classicists of dogmatic snobbery. A compromise policy led to cities and then even male names being given the feminine suffix "a" or "ia", a practice which continued until the Second World War, by which time there were 2,000 known minor planets. This led to strange- sounding names such as Disneya (in honour of Uncle Walt) and Planckia (after physicist Max Planck), which smacked of something out of Up Pompeii.

The sheer number of names needed for minor planets means it is one of the few areas where astronomers can exercise personal whimsy, so long as IAU rules on political and military associations, and overlong names are satisfied. Astronomers have exercised their choice by bagging about a quarter of the names for themselves, while an even better bet for getting your moniker on an asteroid has been to work your way up the IAU's career ladder - a route which provides one of the few ways for a living person to book a spot in space, and beats getting a gold watch for your years at the office.

Loosening attitudes in the past few years have injected an increasing dose of popular culture into proceedings. One example is the number of rock giants who have now also become giant rocks. While it's no surprise to find the Beatles making it as a space quartet - Lennon (4147), McCartney (4148), Harrison (4149) and Starr (4150) - who would have thought that one of the first rock musicians to make the asteroid big time would be Carlos Santana (2620)? Pressure from fans can also sway the IAU, which named asteroid (3834) Zappafrank a year after the great man's death following hundreds of letters, while Jerry Garcia received a similar honour when he went to the great gig in the sky. Ella Fitzgerald is also set for a memorial in the blackness of space, according to Brian Marsden, who chairs the nine-strong IAU Names Committee, which passes about 50 minor planet names every two months.

Secular events have always had an impact on titles proposed for celestial objects and Marsden notes a sudden crop of sporting suggestions after a clutch of major events this year. Olympic fever has led to athletes Jesse Owens and Emil Zatopek taking their marks, while the cricket-loving Marsden is happy that Don Bradman and Gary Sobers have also been honoured.

Dr Who fans, meanwhile, will be pleased to know that asteroid (3325) is called TARDIS, while Star Trek fans can look out for (2309) Spock - though this was named initially after the discoverer's ginger cat rather than directly in honour of the pointy-eared Vulcan. Minor planet (2001), however, didn't add to the sci-fi list, with the obvious options of either Kubrick or Clarke losing out to Einstein, giving the physics legend a minor planet to add to his lunar crater.

Family ties are close in the asteroid belt, with many astronomers choosing to name discoveries after their nearest and dearest. The most extreme example is probably the astronomical duo Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker, whose minor planet family tree is reaching up towards 20, with their own names joined by everyone from grandparents and aunts to in-laws.

Though no one objects to these family gatherings, Carolyn Shoemaker has found herself under fire in the controversy surrounding the naming of comets. Unlike asteroids, which are named by their discoverers, comets are generally named after them. While this system is a major spur to amateur astronomers, the IAU is not happy about the current trend among the professionals to name their comets after teams of people.

Working with David Levy, the Shoemakers have discovered many comets, with perhaps the most famous being Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which got its double-barrelled name on to the front pages following its spectacular crash into Jupiter in 1994. But Brian Marsden disagrees with Carolyn Shoemaker's demand that every member of the team be honoured in the name of the comet, even when she makes the actual discovery by scanning the team's photographs. He likens her attitude with asking for the name of the builder of the telescope to be included.

The problem began back in the 1920s when two Hamburg astronomers, Schwassiann and Wachmann, were allowed by the IAU to name their discovery jointly, and things got worse in 1939 when three names - all independent discovers this time - were grouped together for comet Jurlof-Achmarof-Hassel. A hassle, indeed, since it led to a clutter of triple-headers streaking through the solar system, with combinations like Hooda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak and Du Toit-Neujmin-Delport reading like a list of high-flying advertising agencies.

The comet problem has now been addressed by the IAU, which has introduced a numbering system that will take precedence over names, using the year and time of the comet's discovery followed by a letter to indicate whether it is a short-periodic comet (like Halley's), long-periodic or uncertain, thus stealing a bit of the personal limelight from the celestial name game.

Attempts to make a buck provide a further hazard, and Marsden admits there are continuing efforts by some astronomers to name their rocks for commercial benefit either to themselves or business friends. But while he is firmly against "blatant commercialism", Marsden is more tolerant of those names which might bring a little "soft money" to some impoverished astronomers.

Before the IAU, however, places like the surface of the Moon were like the Wild West, where no name could feel safe as successive selenographers simply replaced the names of predecessors with their own choices in a Darwinian struggle to see which ones survived. Michel van Langren kicked things off with 300 names on his Moon map of 1645 using biblical names and people at the court of his patron, Philip IV. Hevelius hit back with a set of different names two years later based on places on Earth, but only his introduction of the idea of "seas" survived when the Italians Francesca Grimaldi and Giovanni Riccioli rode into town in 1651. They enjoyed more success, and many of their names - such as Mare Tranquillitatis (the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 touched down in 1969) - still survive.

The IAU's firm hand on nomenclature means they are not happy with companies which offer to "name a star" for you - in exchange for a large fee, of course. The designation of stars is another story altogether, but of the millions in our own galaxy alone, only about 850 have been given proper names - with coded versions of their astronomical co-ordinates being the main method of designation. Perhaps only about 50 proper names are in common use by astronomers, though science fiction has put names like Betelgeuse (one of the many Arab names) into general circulation. That does, however, leave an awful lot of stars without names, and companies trading under official-sounding titles have tried to exploit this by playing on the public's ignorance. For fees ranging from pounds 55 upwards, they offer to pluck a star from the million-plus in the Hubble Guide Star Catalogue and send you a certificate claiming that it has now been renamed Arsenal Winger, Betty Boo, or whatever you have chosen, adding that this is now official, since they have registered your name in various offices round the world.

Save your money. Even better, buy a telescope. If you really want to name something in space, find a comet or an asteroid. Or maybe just plug your favourite rock star when they die. !

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