‘Vitebsk’ appears in Solar system

Committee for Small Body Nomenclature in Cambridge registers asteroid with cognominal name

By Darya Kurilova

The asteroid was found in 2009 via remote access at the Tzec Maun observatory (USA). The fully computerised observatory allows registered users to observe the night sky via an Internet connection to their telescope. Users can simply select co-ordinates to guide the telescope towards a particular star, set the type of recording and, finally, supervise the whole process (as the automatic system can fail). Pictures are processed manually, with a calibration test needed to eradicate background interference. Images are then loaded into an astrometric programme, to allow them to be matched against the astrometric catalogue. Any new objects in the picture are then obvious. Naturally, the whole process takes some hours. If a new celestial body does appear to have been discovered it must then be observed for several years before being granted a cardinal catalogue number.

Amateur Vitebsk stargazer Vitaly Nevsky observed the asteroid for three weeks, matching data with various archive observations for five oppositions. Additional observations were also carried out in 2010 and, as a result, cardinal number 264,061 was awarded, which then permits the giving of a name. At the end of 2011, it was given the name ‘Vitebsk’ — as awarded by the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature in the honour of the regional centre of Belarus. The head teacher of Vitebsk State University, Vladimir Golubev, and Victor Shor — of the Institute of Applied Astronomy of the RAS — helped in correlating data relating to the discovery.

The inverse diameter of the ‘Vitebsk’ asteroid is about 5km and it was situated 354 million kilometres from the Earth at the moment of its discovery. It is making an almost circular orbit of the Sun every 6.36 years, bringing it no closer to the Earth than 330 million kilometres.

Only three asteroids in the universe bear the names of Belarusian cities: ‘Minsk’ and ‘Brest’ have been awarded previously. However, there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids in the Solar System. Many are named after figures from Greek and Roman mythology while recent discoveries tend to be more individually named, as is now permitted. Discoverers often name an asteroid after themselves. Initially asteroids were primarily given female names; only those with unusual orbits were given male names (for instance, Ikar actually comes closer to the Sun than Mercury during its orbit). Later, this rule was also set aside.

Only asteroids with defined orbits can be named and it can take dozens of years for such data to be confirmed. Until then, it is given a cardinal number detailing its date of discovery. Its name is then later added.

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