Science » Technologies and discoveries

Proportion of "Russian" asteroids shrinking

People are receiving spam in their mailboxes  with offers to buy a star name after you or your loved ones, then to register it in the Universal Star Catalog's database of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (Harvard, USA), and to provide you with a registration certificate often wonder whether it is really possible to receive a star as a gift.

Oleg Bykov, a professional astronomer from Pulkovo-based Main Astronomical Observatory of Russian Academy of Science (RAS) explains that stars have their coordinates in the sky and the relevant numbers in star catalogues. Catalogues are freely accessed, for instance through the Internet, and used, but not for profit making. And there exists only one way to be registered in the Universal Star Catalog of the above American observatory. That is to discover a minor planet or comet using a small modern telescope with CCD matrix  yourself and send the calculated coordinates to the Minor Planet Center in the USA. They will confirm your  discovery  after the orbit of a newly discovered asteroid or comet is firmly established via at least two-year observations.  The discovered object  will be allocated a number, and you will be able  to name it after your
loved ones, your mum, or city. The International Astronomical Union judges the chosen  name s suitability and provides you a certificate. Naming objects after contemporary politicians, or any transnational company like Sony, General Electric or Microsoft is not allowed.

Generally, it is professional astronomers who discover minor planets and comets.

In Russia they are observers from the Astronomy Institute of the RAS. However, every year amateur observers from the USA, Japan and Europe participating in this process discover dozens of new objects. Unfortunately, in Russia only Timur Kryachko is the only amateur observer who has several minor planets discovered in 1995, though not named yet.  Meanwhile, associations of amateur observers all over the world are involved in tracking new celestial objects, especially those approaching Earth's orbit under a global program aimed to protect our planet from potentially hazardous asteroids and comets.

In Russia, the situation on this front is simply desperate. The break-up of the Soviet Union led to losing the optical tracking stations located in Ukraine, the Caucasus region and Central Asia.  In addition, Russian science, due to slashed financing, was deprived of the revolutionary CCD-based observation technology successfully developed abroad throughout the 1990s. This technology directly affects the crucial area of space control.  Ground optical stations provide timely detection and further tracking of various space objects like rockets, spy satellites, or potentially hazardous celestial bodies like near-Earth asteroids or comets.

Even military tracking facilities failed to warn about the fall of the Vitim bolide in 2002 in the Irkutsk Region. The existing gap between our foreign colleagues and us in tracking such objects may become too wide to close. By all signs, rapid upgrading of our telescopes, let alone special tracking systems, with modern CCD radiation detectors is not a feasible reality.

Frankly speaking, observatories in Russia lack necessary equipment and programs for observation of asteroids and comets,  says Oleg Bykov.  As a result, new minor planets are being named mainly after prominent people of science and culture from America, Japan, Italy and other countries. Barely a thousand out of 12,000 minor planets named to date were named for Russians. In all likelihood, foreign astronomers will have the privilege of suggesting names for about 60,000 minor planets in the next few years. Thus, failures in a scientific field seemingly not directly linked to politics seem to damage the
prestige of Russia   the proportion of Russian names among those of Main Belt asteroids placed between Mars and Jupiter dramatically diminishes.

Sergei Komarov

Translated by ZM