The week he died, science-fiction humorist Douglas Adams was honored with an asteroid named after one of the characters from his classic "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Now, almost four years later, Adams has his own name in the heavens as well — thanks to a campaign in which MSNBC.com played a part.
Asteroid Douglasadams was among the 71 newly named celestial objects announced Tuesday by the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass. Other honorees range from Ball Aerospace and the city of Las Vegas to the sometimes-overlooked co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, Rosalind Franklin.
But Adams' asteroid should hold special appeal for fans of science fiction and pop culture: His "Hitchhiker" saga, which traces the adventures of a motley interplanetary crew after Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, started out as a BBC radio comedy. Eventually, the tale inspired a five-novel "trilogy" as well as a TV series, and a long-simmering movie version is due for release in May.
When Adams died of a heart attack in 2001, at the age of 49, tributes came in from around the world — but one of the biggest tributes was actually announced just days before his death: the naming of an asteroid after Arthur Dent, the Earthling at the center of the "Hitchhiker" story.
Through the years, about 12,000 asteroids have been given proper names by the IAU's Committee on Small Body Nomenclature — including fictional characters as well as mythological names (Ceres and Quaoar) and real-life personages (Lincoln and Elvis). The names are traditionally proposed by a particular asteroid's discoverer. For example, the "Arthurdent" asteroid was so named at the suggestion of the man who actually found it, German astronomer Felix Hormuth.
But there's a backlog of not-yet-named asteroids, and so the discoverers occasionally take requests. That's where MSNBC.com enters into the story of Asteroid Douglasadams.
What's in a name?
In August 2003, we reported on the naming of seven asteroids after Columbia's fallen astronauts, and solicited readers' suggestions for future asteroid names. One reader, Sean Ferris, put Adams' name forward — and we took it a step further by seeing if there was an asteroid particularly fitting for the honor.
One prospect stood out: an asteroid given the provisional designation 2001 DA42, discovered by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research project, or LINEAR. It's a relatively unremarkable space rock, orbiting 224 million miles (358 million kilometers) from the sun in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter. But its name held triple significance.
Not only did it memorialize the year of Adams' death (2001) and his initials (DA), but it also referenced the number 42 — which is absurdly meaningful in the "Hitchhiker" saga as the "answer to the Ultimate Question." (The problem was, no one ever knew precisely what the Ultimate Question was.)
We proposed the name to Brian Marsden, the Minor Planet Center's director and the secretary for the naming committee — and Marsden was tickled by the idea. "This was sort of made for him, wasn't it?" he recalled Tuesday.
It took almost a year and a half for the proposal to make its way through the relevant committees at LINEAR and the IAU — but Marsden finally issued the citations for Douglasadams and the 70 other named asteroids on Tuesday in Minor Planet Circular 53469.
Looking back, Marsden said the asteroid-naming process isn't always as fun as you might think. "It ought to be," he said. "But at times it can be very frustrating."
Some names had to be rejected this time around because they took the form of unpronounceable acronyms, running afoul of the IAU's rules. Another rule is that asteroids shouldn't be named after controversial historical figures such as Stalin or Hitler. That sparked a debate over a proposal to name an asteroid (1998 OU7) after the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, Marsden said.
In the end, Asteroid Clausewitz was victorious. "It was decided he wasn't in the same class as Hitler," Marsden said.
Among the other notables on Tuesday's list:
- Rosfranklin (1997 PE6): Chemist Rosalind Franklin's work was instrumental in identifying the molecular structure of DNA, but she died without receiving due credit for her contribution.
- Ballaero (1925 BA): Recognizes Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp., which has contributed to the development of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, the Deep Impact probe and other spacecraft.
- NEAT (2001 SS272): Named after the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program. Other asteroids honor the Rome Planetarium in Italy and Kharkiv National University in Kiev.
- Wollstonecraft (2004 DA): Honors 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Other asteroids recognize theologians Roger Bacon and Thomas Woolston, and the recently appointed U.S. poet laureate, Ted Kooser.
- Las Vegas (2001 LV6): A celestial tribute to the Nevada city in honor of its centennial this year. Among other places newly honored by asteroid names are Sewanee in Tennessee, Bora-Bora and the Lithuanian city of Kaunas.