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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

I, Rock

By Phil Plait

Sometimes, it pays to have friends in high places. Figuratively and literally.

My friend Jeff Medkeff was an astronomer and asteroid hunter. Shortly before he died,* he named a passel of asteroids for some well-known skeptics, and I was incredibly honored to be among them. Asteroid 2000 WG11 (165347) became known as 165347 Philplait. Itâs a kilometer or so across, and (like me) slightly eccentric; it orbits the Sun on an elliptical path between Mars and Jupiter.

Another friend of mine, Amy Mainzer, is the principal investigator of the NEOWISE (née WISE) mission, a NASA spacecraft dedicated to looking for near-Earth asteroids. She hinted she had something she wanted to give me over the holidays, and I had a suspicion what it was ⦠and it turns out I was close.

WISE never got good images of Philplait due to orbital issues and a full Moon. However, other observatories had better circumstances. Amy pulled a few strings and managed to put together some fantastic images of the rock!

The shot at the top is from the Pan-STARRS observatory, c/o Larry Denneau, and shows the asteroid in 2011 moving across a backdrop of stars. The telescope tracks the stars, so the moving asteroid appears as a series of dots. It was observed four times, each time with a different filterâthat helps determine things like sizeâand thatâs why it looks like itâs flying the rainbow flag.

This next image is also very cool:

Thatâs from Bob McMillan and Jeff Larsen of Spacewatch/LPL/UArizona and shows observations made in late October 2011. Again, different filters give it a multihued look.

This inspires me to try to see it for myself with my own telescope. Others have before, but it seems appropriate for me to try. Itâs on the other side of the Sun right now, but later this year it might be worth the effort.

Itâs surreal to see those dots, and know they show the reflected light from some 200 billion tons of rock slowly orbiting the Sun over 300 million kilometers away. Itâs even odder to think that a couple of centuries from now, that rock may be visited by someone, maybe mined for materials, or just logged as a potential moving hazard crossing the usual space lanes used by tourists as they head out for their stay at Hotel Titan. The celestial body bearing my name will long, long outlive the human body bearing it.

⦠which gives me an interesting thought. What person will be the first to visit an asteroid named after them? And perhaps in a macabre twist, with space travel getting easier and cheaper over time, I suspect itâs inevitable that someone will eventually have their ashes sent to their astronomical namesake. Itâll cost a fortune, but then some folks do have that kind of money.

Which gives me a second interesting thought. Hey, Elon Musk, call me! I have an idea.

My very sincere thanks to Amy, Bob, Jeff, and Larry for doing this for me. I am moved and honored!

*Jeff Medkeff was a terrific guy, and beloved in many communities. In his honor, the Atlanta Star Party is held every year the night before Dragon Con around Labor Day. Itâs one of my favorite events of the year, and the money raised goes to charity.

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