Trick question: Who-or what-are Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr? Yes, yes, they are, or rather were, Beatles, but they are also heavenly bodies, and in Ringo’s case I’m talking about a lot more than just his last name. Technically speak, the heavenly bodies in this case are named 4147 Lennon, 41484 McCartney, 4149 Harrison and 4150 Starr and they aren’t stars, but asteroids. While naming planets, moons and stars get all Latin and Greek in their seriousness, naming asteroids has more of a fun element to it. So can you name an asteroid after your favorite singing star, actor or best friend? Yes…and no.
If you are fortunate enough to be an amateur astronomer who actually discovers a new asteroid, then you immediately get to take part in the process by which those asteroids receive their names. The International Astronomical Union’s Small Bodies Names Committee is the body officially in charge of governing the names given to asteroids, but the way it works is essentially this: those who discover the asteroid compile a list and present it to the International Astronomical Union’s Small Bodies Names Committee. Those suggestions are then whittled down to avoid anything offensive, as well as certain other logistical problems like naming asteroids after living politicians.
Ah, but since there are literally thousands of unnamed asteroids out there, what about them? Here’s where you can get a slight chance of your own at naming a heavenly body. If the discoverer has not presented an acceptable name to the International Astronomical Union’s Small Bodies Names Committee after ten years, it pretty much becomes fair game. In fact, less than half of the 30,000-plus asteroids have so far been named, so there is a not altogether indecent chance at naming an asteroid yourself. Consider the case of asteroid zappafrank, named after the iconoclastic rocker, Frank Zappa. A focused campaign to get Zappa his own asteroid was launched and the International Astronomical Union’s Small Bodies Names Committee received hundreds of e-mails in support. For some reason musicians from Mozart to Zappa seem to be quite popular, although surprisingly it took until quite recently for Elvis to finally be spotted in outer space.
If you are considering launching your own campaign to name an asteroid, as the case of asteroids named after Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr should make perfectly clear, one need not be dead in order to have an asteroid named after him. Except, as noted earlier, in the cases of politicians and rulers. You can try all you want to send Dick Cheney into space and turn him appropriately into an ass-teroid, but you’ll have to wait 100 years until after he dies to do.
What the hey, you can’t wait a 105 years?