Asteroids named for 2 ASU professors

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Two Arizona State University professors have received an honor that is out of this world -- literally.

Two asteroids revolving around the sun have been named after planetary geologists Phil Christensen and Dave Williams, who work in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Both asteroids are located in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and are not likely to hit the Earth, according to experts.

Asteroid (90388) Philchristensen, a relatively small asteroid at 2.8 miles across, was discovered on Nov. 24, 2003 by the Catalina Sky Survey.

Christensen is the instrument scientist for the OSIRIS-Rex Thermal Emission Spectrometer, a mineral-scouting instrument on the OSIRIS-Rex mission to asteroid Bennu. He was also the principal investigator for infrared spectrometers and imagers on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Exploration Rovers.

"My research has long been focused on Mars," Christensen said in a statement. "But my broader interests involve all solar-system bodies, and I've spent the last several years working on an asteroid mission. I really appreciate this honor."

Asteroid (10461) Dawilliams orbits about 2.42 astronomical units from Earth and was discovered on Dec. 6, 1978 at Palomar Observatory.

Williams, an expert in the mapping of volcanic surfaces, helped develop geologic maps of planetary bodies including Mars, Io and Vesta.

"I was very surprised to receive this honor from the astronomical community. Only a select few of the Dawn at Vesta participating scientists, who did exemplary work during the mission, were so honored," Williams said in a statement.

While star names are sold over the Internet, asteroid names are presided over by the International Astronomical Union, an organization of professional astronomers.

When an asteroid is discovered, it is given a provisional designation by the Minor Planet Center of the IAU including the year of discovery, two letters and possibly further digits if necessary. When its orbit can be predicted accurately, the asteroid is given a permanent number and is eligible for naming. Proposed names are then approved by the IAU's committee of Small Body Nomenclature.

Many objects end up being named after astronomers and other scientists, but some have also been named after celebrities. All four Beatles and James Bond have their names on asteroids.

Williams and Christensen share the honor with several of their colleagues in the School of Earth and Space Exploration: Erik Asphaug, professor - Asteroid (7939) Asphaug; Jim Bell, professor - Asteroid (8146) Jimbell; Lindy Elkins-Tanton, foundation professor and School of Earth and Space Exploration director - Asteroid (8252) Elkins-Tanton; Ronald Greeley, professor emeritus - Asteroid (30785) Greeley, and Greeley's Haven (on Mars); Sumner Starrfield, regents' professor - Asteroid (19208) Starrfield; Meenakshi Wadhwa, professor - Asteroid (8356) Wadhwa.