Vatican City – Three astronomers of the Vatican Observatory and a Pope linked to the Observatory now have asteroids named after them. On February 7, 2023, the International Astronomical Union’s group of scientists responsible for naming small celestial bodies published the latest series of named asteroids (WGSBN Bulletin 3, #2), which includes:
• 562971 Johannhagen — in honor of Fr. Johann Hagen (1847-1930) of the Society of Jesus (SJ) and director of the
Vatican Observatory from 1906 to 1930.
• 551878 Stoeger — in honor of Fr. Bill Stoeger, SJ (1943-2014), cosmologist and theologian of the Vatican Observatory.
• 565184 Janusz — in honor of Fr. Robert Janusz, SJ (born 1964), currently on the Observatory staff.
• 560974 Ugoboncompagni — in honor of Ugo Boncompagni (1502-1585), Pope Gregory XIII, who directed the reform of the calendar and started the tradition of papal astronomers and observers. He commissioned astronomer P. Christopher Clavius, SJ (who also has an asteroid named after him – 20237 Clavius) to work on the calendar project. He then wrote the book in which he explained what is now called the “Gregorian” calendar, used throughout the world today.
The four asteroids, or “little planets”, all have ties to the Society of Jesus – the “Jesuits”. Over thirty asteroids bear the name of Jesuits today. Some are Jesuits from centuries ago, like Clavius, or Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598-1671), who developed the lunar nomenclature system still used today. (For example, when the Apollo 11 mission landed in the lunar “Sea of Tranquility,” the name “Tranquility” was derived from Riccioli.)
Some, like Janusz, are Jesuits who are still working today. Because Jesuits have traveled extensively for centuries, these more than thirty asteroids represent different parts of the world, such as the Philippines (4866 Badillo), Paraguay (6438 Suarez), China (31124 Slavicek), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (23443 Kikwaya) and Argentina (2490 Bussolini).
According to the IAU, assigning a particular name to a given asteroid (minor planet) takes place through a process that, in some cases, can last decades. When a new minor planet is discovered, it is given a tentative designation, based on the date of discovery, such as “2002 LM60”. When the object’s orbit is determined such that its position can be reliably predicted in the distant future (typically after it has been observed four or more times as it approaches Earth), it is assigned a number final, issued successively by the IAU’s Center for Minor Planets, as “4179”.
At this point its discoverer is invited to suggest a name. No pet names or trade names are allowed. Names of individuals or events known primarily for political or military reasons may not be used until 100 years after the death of the individual or the date of the event.
Naming rights cannot be purchased. The proposed names are judged by the WGSBN, made up of fifteen professional astronomers from around the world with research interests related to minor planets and comets.
Robotic searches have discovered thousands of new asteroids, so the WGSBN must limit the number of those
which receive a formal name. Thus, most asteroids receive only a numerical designation. The asteroids Johannhagen, Stoeger and Janusz join many others already named by astronomers of the Vatican Observatory, including 302849 Richardboyle, 119248 Corbally, 14429 Coyne, 4597 Consolmagno, 23443 Kikwaya and 11266 Macke.
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