Astronomical Organization Names Asteroid for University

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Space Rock Located Between Mars and Jupiter Measures Several Miles Wide

LOWELL, Mass. ߝ An asteroid circling the Sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and measuring 2.5 to 5.5 miles across has been named after UMass Lowell. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) in August officially christened minor planet No. 7806 as “Umasslowell” in honor of the University’s academic and scientific achievements.

Asteroids are solid, rocky bodies thought to be remnants from the formation of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. They range in size from small pebbles and boulders to the size of islands hundreds of miles across.

The official citation for 7806 Umasslowell, published in Minor Planet Center Circular No. 63639, reads: “The University of Massachusetts at Lowell is an educational and research institution with roots dating back to the 1890s. UMass Lowell faculty and students conduct pioneering work in such fields as nanotechnology, advanced polymers, life sciences and radar imaging.”

“This is truly an honor for UMass Lowell,” says Chancellor Marty Meehan. “We’re grateful to the international astronomical community for this special recognition.”

The IAU, through its 15-member Committee on Small Body Nomenclature, is the scientific organization responsible for the naming of small bodies in the solar system, such as asteroids and comets. In the case of minor planets, for centuries they have traditionally been named after mythological figures and geographical places, as well as renowned scientists, poets, composers, artists, novelists, and other prominent personalities.

Before an asteroid name becomes official, it goes through the IAU’s rigorous evaluation and approval process. “Asteroid names are normally proposed by the discoverers, but other proposals are sometimes considered,” says Dr. Brian G. Marsden, director of the IAU’s Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge. “If even one committee member objects strongly to a name, it is likely to be rejected. Most names get approved because not even a minor objection is voiced.”

According to Marsden, of the nearly 14,700 names that had been given so far to asteroids, only about 300 have been bestowed to institutes, observatories and universities. Thus, UML joins a small number of prestigious institutions of higher learning worldwide that have been honored in this manner. In the U.S., these include Princeton University, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Brown University, Caltech, MIT and Cornell.

Umasslowell revolves around the Sun at an average distance of 226 million miles and takes 3.8 years to complete one orbit. According to the MPC Circular, the asteroid was discovered on October 26, 1971, by Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek at Hamburg Observatory in Germany, and was given the provisional designation 1971 UM. Many people remember him as the discoverer of the famous Comet Kohoutek in 1973.

Asteroid 7806 Umasslowell is currently about 202 million miles from Earth. It shines very dimly at magnitude 18.7, near the star Antares, and lies close to the boundary of the constellations Scorpius and Ophiuchus. One would need a fairly large telescope and a sensitive electronic camera to record its tiny, star-like image. For more technical information about Umasslowell, including an interactive diagram of its orbit, visit the Solar System Dynamics website of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at;orb=1;cov=0;log=0#orb

The asteroid’s name was proposed by Edwin L. Aguirre, a former associate editor of Sky & Telescope magazine who is now the science and technology writer at UMass Lowell, and his wife, Imelda B. Joson, Sky & Telescope’s former photo editor.

UMass Lowell, with a national reputation in science, engineering and technology, is committed to educating students for lifelong success in a diverse world and conducting research and outreach activities that sustain the economic, environmental and social health of the region. UML offers its 12,000 students more than 120 degree choices, internships, five-year combined bachelor’s to master’s programs and doctoral studies in the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Management, the School of Health and Environment, and the Graduate School of Education.


Editor’s Note: Photos are available.