28 June 2010
Media - General (Good)
Naming a Minor Planet
For major kudos
by G B Leatherwood
“If you had the chance to name a minor planet what would you name it?”

That’s what the Naming X competition asked school-aged children worldwide, and imaginative, thoughtful answers poured in from 38 countries, including Ghana, India, and Belgium.

The brainchild of amateur astronomer, space activist, and educator Thilina Heenatigala of Colombo, Sri Lanka--under the auspices of the Space Renaissance Education Chapter--this competition excited the imaginations of not just children but of schools who embraced the chance to take a good look at the heavens.

Space Future Journal caught up with this 24-year-old whirlwind just as the contest entries were flooding in from all over the world. (The contest recently concluded.)

Space Future Journal: We understand you got the idea for the contest from the documentary Naming Pluto, about 11-year-old Venetia Burney's suggestion for naming the newly discovered planet Pluto. How did you decide to make this a worldwide effort?

Thilina Heenatigala: 2010 celebrates the 80th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto and marks anniversary of [the death of] Venetia Burney Phair. The most influential 11-year-old in the history of astronomy died 30 April 2009, aged 90.

SFJ: It's possible that not many people outside the field of astronomy are fully acquainted with this, so we did a little research:

In 1930 young American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh announced his finding of a tiny bright dot that moved, proving that it was a celestial body circling our sun and not just another star. This was the ninth planet in our solar system...even though in recent years it was downgraded from full planetary status to that of a minor planet.

At the time, Ms. Burney was 11 years old. She had heard from her grandfather Falconer Madan, that a new planet had been discovered. She suggested the name “Pluto” (not from the famed Walt Disney cartoon character, by the way), the Roman God of the Underworld who could make himself invisible.

Falconer Madan forwarded the suggestion to astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who cabled his American colleagues at Lowell Observatory. The result was that on 1 May 1930, the name “Pluto” was formally adopted for this new celestial body.

TH: That's interesting. I came up with the idea of naming a global competition in celebration of both occasions. Of course my immediate reaction was to contact Ginita Jimenez, director/producer of the successful documentary, Naming Pluto.

She was ecstatic about the idea, and we jumped into organizing the competition via the Space Renaissance Education Chapter, in collaboration with Father Films. We used major astronomy and media networks to get the word out. Also, using social networks was very effective. We wanted to get the word out as far as possible, since this was a unique opportunity for students at all levels.

SFJ: In addition to the publicity from such outlets as Sky and Telescope, how many schools responded, either with encouragement of their students to enter the contest or class projects, etc?

TH: We had support from many organizations when it came to publicity. The competition was featured in International Year of Astronomy, The Planetary Society Blog, Sky and Telescope blog, Scientific American, Universe Awareness, etc.

There were entries from 38 countries. Some teachers and educators ran small campaigns locally to collect names from students and send them together.

SFJ: Which governments or scientific agencies responded to your idea?

TH: The response from various organizations was very impressive. When we informed the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union (the body responsible for the naming of minor planets and comets) they were very excited and proposed to us to submit the winning entries via a paper to consider using for real planets. This was a big step, as there's a high possibility that one or more names could be used for real minor planets, which is a unique opportunity almost as history repeating.

SFJ: You must have gotten some very interesting names. What can you tell us about that?

TH: We had very interesting entries, some with a cultural touch or personal views, or even commonly Latin names. Our main idea of the competition was to explore the vivid imagination of young students (of course the competition is open to all ages).

When Venetia came up with the name it was 80 years ago, and the way students see things has changed immensely. [One of the reasons we did this was] also to get students interested in science. We encouraged teachers to run the competition as a class room activity as well, where students get to identify what is a minor planet, how it is different from the main planetary objects in the solar system, etc.

SFJ: For you personally, what was the most significant and satisfying aspect of this adventure?

TH: During the course of the competition period, the most significant part was when I saw the replies from over-thrilled kids who won and their parents thoughts. And other most satisfying aspect was that some of the school teachers and educators took the time to teach kids about minor planets and participating in the competition conducted as an activity.

SFJ: This was such a wonderful idea! Inspiring children to become interested in space is one of the biggest challenges we have in the space community; after all, becoming an astronaut wasn't their parent's dream, but their grandparents.

You can find more information related to the competition here.

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G B Leatherwood 28 June 2010
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