Little buddy needs a name

Trojan Asteroid 2010 TK7 sounds more like a used car

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I have exciting news for anyone who grew up pretending to be Capt. Kirk and dreaming of going where no man has gone before -- we are not alone!

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/07/2011 (4148 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I have exciting news for anyone who grew up pretending to be Capt. Kirk and dreaming of going where no man has gone before — we are not alone!

I do not mean we are not alone in the sense of a typical Star Trek episode wherein Kirk and Bones and Mr. Spock would beam down to the surface of a strange planet in their red pyjamas and discover it is populated by beautiful green-skinned alien women with three navels.

No, I mean we are not alone in the sense that scientists — and get ready to feel very patriotic, because these are Canadian scientists — have just discovered we have a little buddy in outer space.

Paul Wiegert / the associated press This artist's conception provided by NASA illustrates the first known Earth Trojan asteroid and its extreme orbit around our planet.

According to news reports I have just read and partially understood, Alberta space scientist Martin Connors and his colleagues recently spotted Earth’s first “Trojan asteroid,” a teeny-tiny space rock that has apparently been happily cruising along with us as we orbit the sun since our planet was formed.

Our itsy-bitsy space companion, known affectionately at the moment as Asteroid 2010 TK7, is about 300 metres across, located anywhere from 20 million to 50 million kilometres away, and reportedly makes a nifty dancing motion as it leads our planet in its dizzying journey around the sun.

In a sincere effort to understand the significance of the first Earth asteroid and write at least 800 words so I can get back on the couch, I spoke with Scott Young, the extremely affable and intelligent manager of science communications at the Manitoba Museum, home to our local planetarium.

As a journalist paid to ask the tough questions, I began by asking Scott how he felt, on a personal level, about referring to our newest friend in the solar system as Asteroid 2010 TK7.

“What a romantic name,” Scott said. “There will be a lot of love songs written about that. What rhymes with TK7? Heaven?

“The thing about asteroids is they discover one or two every week. There’s a lot of them out there. They get discovered so quickly they’ve given up naming them. Until something is sort of special, it just gets a catalogue number. I’m sure this one will get a name because it has a special relationship with our planet.”

What’s special about TK7, Scott explained, is it’s the first time we’ve stumbled on a planetoid that sticks with us permanently as we meander around the solar system.

“This is our first permanent companion,” he said. “It’s the first asteroid satellite of the Earth. It’s really cool, because we discovered it in our own backyard. There’s lots of asteroids out there, but to find one that’s like a mini-moon is unprecedented.

“It reminds us we don’t know everything. There’s something we didn’t know about and it’s always been there. It’s like finding long-lost relatives you didn’t know existed.”

Scott said our little space buddy was found partly because we now have super powerful telescopes, but also because scientists are keeping a wary eye out for a Giant Killer Asteroid. The great news is the gravity balance between the Earth and the sun keeps TK7 at a safe distance “so this one won’t kill us.”

But that is not the important scientific point. The important scientific point is that we cannot keep calling our loyal little space buddy Asteroid 2010 TK7, because that sounds like the name of a cheesy used car.

Then I had a genius idea. It occurred to me we could call the little guy Gilligan, because its relationship to the Earth is almost identical to the relationship between the Skipper and his “Little Buddy” Gilligan in my favourite 1960s TV series, Gilligan’s Island, wherein a group of people take a “three-hour cruise” and become stranded on a tropical island so remote the U.S. navy can’t track them during three entire seasons.

As a serious scientist, Scott said he thought Gilligan would be a swell name for an asteroid and then casually informed me he himself has an asteroid named after him. “There are asteroids named after people’s cats,” he noted, “and there’s an asteroid named after me called Scott Young. It’s Asteroid No. 14698.”

I was duly impressed and Scott confessed this honour came about because a group of buddies who work on an asteroid-hunting space telescope in Hawaii were sitting around — you will be shocked to hear beer was involved — when they decided to name a space rock after their colleague in Winnipeg.

“It’s a little bit odd,” Scott said when I asked how it felt to have his own asteroid, “but then again I think I rank above someone’s cat. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be the one that crashes into us and wipes out humanity.”

I understand Scott’s concern, but as men of science we should remain calm and remember one cold, hard fact — our “Little Buddy” Gilligan would never do anything to hurt Skipper!

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
Columnist

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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