The idea of having one named after an asteroid barely crosses the minds of most men. Mary Lou Whitehorne is one of the lucky persons to enjoy the privilege. The longtime science educator and a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in Calgary, Whitehorne was surprised with a small asteroid named after him. The asteroid was orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.
Whitehorne revealed that he was completely floored and completely speechless. The Whitehorne’s colleagues had waited about two years for the name to be approved. Asteroids can’t be named for just anything or anyone; there’s a careful selection process with lots of rules, managed by an international organization in charge of collecting and sorting observational data for asteroids.
The Minor Planet Center organization is run out of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts, and under the purview of the International Astronomical Union, an organization of professional astronomers.
The discovery of the first asteroids in the early 1800s led to the naming of the figures in Roman and Greek mythology, like Ceres, Pallas, and Vesta. Astronomers ran out of those options fairly quickly, so they started looking elsewhere.
Asteroids are mostly named for people, places, animals, plants, and other natural phenomena. The discoverers of asteroids are responsible for proposing the names. However, there are rules, and their proposals can get shorn of.
The Minor Planet Center gives a provisional designation composed of the year of discovery and two numbers to a new asteroid that is discovered. After astronomers successfully study and confirm its orbit, it gets a permanent numeral designation that corresponds with the object’s place on the chronological list of previous discoveries.
A period of 10 years is given to the discoverer to suggest and submit a name for the object, including a short pitch for why the name should be accepted. The 15-person committee at the International Astronomical Union judges the name and, if it approves, publishes it in a monthly newsletter.
The conditions state that the names should be 16 characters or less in length; preferably one word; pronounceable; non-offensive; and not too like an existing name of an asteroid.