Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Auckland astronomer wins approval for naming asteroid after New Zealand

An asteroid - pictured orbiting in a belt between Mars and Jupiter - has been named after New Zealand. Photo: Supplied
An asteroid - pictured orbiting in a belt between Mars and Jupiter - has been named after New Zealand. Photo: Supplied

There's now a version of New Zealand in space.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has just formally approved the name "New Zealand" for an asteroid whizzing around a belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The space rock, estimated to be around one kilometre across, was named by its discoverer, Auckland astronomer Jennie McCormick.

Her initial discovery was made on September 16, 2009, when the asteroid happened to be at its closest point to Earth and therefore at its brightest.

Even so, it was exceedingly faint and could easily have been missed.

McCormick noticed the very faint moving object in images she was making of a comet, and it was a lucky coincidence that both objects just happened to lie within the narrow field of her telescope.

"I always like to check every image I take just in case it shows up something unexpected," said McCormick, an internationally recognised amateur astronomer who runs the Howick-based Farm Cove observatory.

"So it was rather thrilling to finally find an asteroid that had so far escaped detection by much larger telescopes."

She immediately sent the position of the new object to both Stardome and Mt John Observatories so that over the following nights and months further supporting observations could be obtained.

Since McCormick's discovery, the asteroid has been observed by a number of observatories around the world and its orbit is now very well determined.

It orbits the Sun once every 3.49 years and comes closest to Earth only once every seven years.

Auckland astronomer Jennie McCormick has had an asteroid named after New Zealand. Photo: File
Auckland astronomer Jennie McCormick has had an asteroid named after New Zealand. Photo: File

It was during one of these closer passes to Earth that McCormick happened to spot it, and at any other time, it would have been too faint to see with her telescope.

On average, "New Zealand" is 345 million km from the sun and never gets closer than about 128 million km to Earth.

Stardome astronomer Dr Grant Christie said the asteroid was currently about 100 times fainter than the faintest star a person could see with their eye through the Edith Winstone Blackwell Telescope (Zeiss) at Stardome - but was still the brightest that we ever see it.

To record, astronomers used a very sensitive charge-coupled device (CCD) camera.

The asteroid was circular in shape, but appeared as a point because the telescope was tracking the asteroid for an hour during a long exposure.

"The asteroid was moving relative to the stars so the stars appear 'trailed' - they give some sense as to how far the asteroid moved over the hour," Christie said.

"It was quite an achievement to discover an asteroid this faint with a smaller telescope than ours from the middle of Auckland."

Over the last decade or two, all the large - and bright - asteroids have been found by intensive professional surveys, and only the small faint ones remain undiscovered.

Space agencies such as Nasa as well as private companies are now seriously considering mining asteroids for their wealth of rare minerals, and it could therefore be possible that in future decades, "New Zealand" will be visited and explored.

To date over 700,000 asteroids have been catalogued but only 2 per cent have yet received a name.

As for whether there might be a chance of "New Zealand" colliding with the Earth one day, Christie considered this highly unlikely.

McCormick has been conducting astronomical research from her observatory for the last 16 years, during which she has studied a wide range of celestial objects and collected thousands of hours of scientific data.

Further to the discovery of "New Zealand", also numbered asteroid "386622", McCormick has contributed to over 50 papers published in major scientific journals and has contributed to the discovery of 19 exoplanets, or planets orbiting other stars.

It's not the first time an object in space has received a name with a Kiwi link: New Zealand astronomers have named objects, and some objects have been named after famous Kiwis, including a crater on Mercury for artist Frances Hodgkins and a crater on the Moon for Sir Ernest Rutherford.

- NZ Herald

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