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Romance amid the stars

Those Valentine's Day "name-a-star" offers may be bogus, but there are some modern-day love stories behind the names of some celestial objects. Just don't look for them written in the stars.

Sure, the stars are romantic, and some of the constellations have some wonderfully romantic tales behind them. Take Coma Berenices, for example: That northern constellation, "Berenice's Hair," gets its name from the story of an Egyptian queen who cut off her golden locks to pay off on a deal she made with the goddess of love to keep her husband safe during wartime. The goddess was so pleased that the hair was taken up to heaven as a cluster of stars.

Nowadays, some companies have set up their own star registries and offer to name a star after your loved one (say, "Berenice") for a price. They freely acknowledge, however, that their registries are not recognized by the scientific community. (If they said otherwise, they'd be breaking the law.)

The International Astronomical Union is the only body that can give official status to the name of a celestial body, and the folks at the IAU are not in the business of selling the naming rights. "Like true love and many other of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy," the world body says in its information file about star names.

Typically, the IAU signs off on names suggested by the discoverers of celestial objects — most notably, the asteroids listed by its Minor Planet Center. Asteroids can take on a wide variety of names — although there are some verboten subjects, including history's most infamous figures (Hitler or Stalin, for instance), pet animals (although a few have slipped through, such as Seppina and Mr. Spock ... the cat, not the "Star Trek" character) and the discoverers themselves.

Space rocks have immortalized scientists (Isaac Newton and Dawkins) rockers (including all of the Beatles), cities (Chicago and Las Vegas) and fictional figures (Arthur Dent from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.") I even played a small role in getting an asteroid named after Douglas Adams, the late author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide."

Lots of asteroids are named after the discoverers' loved ones. Italian astronomer Stefano Mottola gave his wife's name, Mirella Lilli, to one of the asteroids he found "on the occasion of their 20th wedding anniversary," according to the official citation. Gary Hug, an amateur astronomer from Kansas, named an asteroid Cynthia — not only as a tribute to his wife, but also as a reference to one of the alternate names for Artemis, the goddess of the moon. "This minor planet was imaged many times with the moon above the horizon," Hug explained in the citation.

Asteroid Villecroze is one of the rare rocks named after the husband of a discoverer: Jean-Louis Villecroze, husband of Canadian astrophysicist Susan Banh Villecroze. In the official citation, Susan calls Jean-Louis "the most important person" in her life.

Two wives, two asteroids

Then there's the story of Ruby Roe and Yvonne Roe, the two wives of astronomer James Roe. Each wife has an asteroid named in her honor.

James Roe told me today that Ruby, his first wife and "the mother of my three children," passed away in 1997. He's been married to his current wife, Yvonne, for 18 years — and she works alongside her husband at the Alliance for Astronomy in eastern Missouri.

"These asteroids were discovered [in 2000] when we were down in Mexico, doing missionary work," James explained. "We had a chance to set up a telescope at our home. ... These days, they've got these machines, humongous telescopes with these monster cameras on them. [But back then,] I was a lone wolf. My wife helped. We take the pictures and then we have to 'blink' them."

It was a given that one of the asteroids would be named after Yvonne. "I was honored," she said as she helped her husband scrape the snow off the concrete at their local observing site.

James, 68, thinks his late ex-wife Ruby would appreciate her personal piece of the sky as well. "I hope she can see it from wherever she's at up there," he told me.

Celestial courtship

The story of asteroid DelGiudice has some romance to it as well. That particular space rock was named after Maria del Giudice, "friend and now wife of one of the discovery team's observers and measurers, Frank Shelly," according to the IAU's citation.

Shelly, a researcher who is now working at the U.S. Geological Survey's Albuquerque Seismological Laboratory in New Mexico, said he had been dating Maria for less than a year when the asteroid was discovered in 1996 at the Experimental Test Site in Socorro, N.M. The researchers at the site were asked to submit names for the space rocks they had found.

"At the time, I put my name in for my girlfriend, then it went into a hold for several years," Shelly told me. The IAU finally came through with the official approval a couple of years ago, he said.

In the meantime, Frank and Maria were married — and who knows? Maybe the business with the asteroid worked in his favor. "She definitely appreciated the gesture," he recalled. "It made her feel extra special."

Update for 9:15 p.m. ET: To my mind, the most romantic story about the naming of a celestial body involves Charon, the biggest moon of Pluto. The icy satellite was discovered in 1978 by James Christy, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, after his boss, Bob Harrington, asked him to make a painstaking study of photographic plates. Here's how Alan Stern and Jacqueline Mitton tell the tale in their book "Pluto and Charon":

"Once Harrington and Christy and other astronomers at the Naval Observatory were convinced that the satellite was real, it fell to Christy to name his find. Within a day of his discovery he offered his wife, Charlene, the honor: 'I could name it after you — it could be Charon.' He was thinking it rhymed with proton and neutron. What a romantic astronomer!

"However, Christy realized within a few days that although it was his to propose a name, the International Astronomical Union's nomenclature bylaws stated that he would have to choose from Greek or Roman mythology, rather than name it after his wife. Someone suggested Persephone, the wife of Pluto. Christy liked that, so he went to a dictionary to get himself out of the trouble this could cause with his wife. The search was on for Ch- names in the mythology. To his amazement, there, in black and white on the page, was the name of a different ancient deity: 'Charon.'

"This was too good to be true! In Greek mythology, Charon was the repugnant boatman who rowed dead souls over the river Styx into Hades, where the god of the underworld, Pluto, ruled. Christy realized this was the solution to his dilemma with both the IAU and his wife. Although correctly pronounced 'Khar-on,' Christy pronounced it 'Shar-on,' like Charlene, who promptly got her moon after all." 

I refer to this tale as well as much more lore about Pluto and its little pals in my book, "The Case for Pluto" — so how could I let Valentine's Day pass without the Pluto angle??

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