A group of astronauts who are trailblazers for their respective ethnicities are now true “rock stars,” having asteroids named for them.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) Minor Planet Center, which oversees the designation of small bodies in the solar system, recently released the list of official asteroid names honoring 27 space travelers of African American, Hispanic and Native American descent. The namesakes include active and former NASA astronauts, U.S. Air Force astronaut candidates and one Soviet-era cosmonaut.
All 27 astronaut-named asteroids were discovered in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter by Marc Buie, a Boulder, Colorado-based astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute, which is headquartered in San Antonio, Texas. Buie is also a co-investigator on NASA’s Lucy mission, which, after launching in October, will study Trojan asteroids that circle the Sun, leading and following Jupiter in its orbit.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to name these asteroids in recognition of fellow space explorers while also adding to the message of the power and value of diversity for all human endeavors,” said Buie in a statement released by NASA.
The idea of naming the asteroids for astronauts was submitted to the IAU by a team of scientists and students involved with the Lucy mission. The effort was led by Cathy Olkin, the deputy principal investigator of the Lucy mission at Southwest Research Institute, with support from Keith Noll, a planetary astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who serves as Lucy project scientist.
“Last summer a group of us got together to honor a diverse group of astronauts who have traveled to space and the pioneers who paved the way for these explorers,” said Olkin. “But there are many more, and we hope to add their names to the sky in the future.”
The new honorees include Joe Acabá and Stephanie Wilson, members of NASA’s Artemis team who are among the first U.S. astronauts preparing for a return to the moon, and Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, a former cosmonaut who was the first Cuban and first person of African heritage to fly into space.
Also among the new namesakes is Michael Lopez-Alegria, who is set to become the first retired NASA astronaut to launch again to the International Space Station as the commander of Axiom Space’s first commercial spaceflight in 2022.
The 27 astronauts (and cosmonaut) join nearly 40 other space explorers whose names were previously added to asteroids. The earlier namesakes include the members of the Apollo 11 moon landing crew; the fallen Soyuz 11, space shuttle Challenger (STS-51L) and space shuttle Columbia (STS-107) crews; and the first human to launch into space almost 60 years ago, Yuri Gagarin.
The full list of newly-named asteroids and the astronauts they honor, as cited by the Minor Planets Center, is as follows:
- (92579) Edward (Ed) Joseph Dwight Jr. (b. 1933)
- (92892) Robert H. Lawrence Jr. (1935-1967)
- (92894) Guion Steward Bluford Jr. (b. 1942)
- (95449) Frederick Drew Gregory (b. 1941)
- (97508) Charles Frank Bolden Jr. (b. 1946)
- (97512) Mae Carol Jemison (b. 1956)
- (103733) Bernard Anthony Harris Jr. (b. 1956)
- (103734) Winston Elliott Scott (b. 1950)
- (103737) Robert Lee Curbeam Jr. (b. 1962)
- (103738) Stephanie Diana Wilson (b. 1966)
- (103739) Joan Higginbotham (b. 1964)
- (104698) Benjamin Alvin Drew (b. 1962)
- (108096) Leland Devon Melvin (b. 1964)
- (108097) Robert Lee Satcher Jr. (b. 1965)
- (114705) Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez (b. 1942)
- (115015) Franklin R. Chang Díaz (b. 1950)
- (116162) Sidney M. Gutierrez (b. 1951)
- (117703) Ellen Ochoa (b. 1958)
- (117704) Michael Lopez-Alegria (b. 1958)
- (118768) Carlos I. Noriega was born in 1959 in Peru and became an astronaut in 1996.
- (118769) John D. Olivas (b. 1966)
- (119890) George D. Zamka (b. 1962) is a retired astronaut.
- (119993) Joseph Acabá (b. 1967)
- (122554) José M. Hernández (b. 1962)
- (122555) Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor (b. 1976)
- (126965) Rodolfo Neri Vela (b. 1952)
- (127030) John Herrington (b. 1958)