Attention, generous donor who won the right to name Patrick Wiggins' next asteroid: This is your chance!
The donor, who wished to remain anonymous, made a substantial donation to public radio station KCPW seven years ago, and in return Wiggins promised that the person would be allowed to name the next asteroid he found. The donor "paid the station quite a bit of money," Wiggins said.
Earlier this month, Wiggins a Tooele County amateur astronomer and NASA solar system ambassador to Utah found a new asteroid. The problem is, the donor's e-mail address has changed, and neither Wiggins nor the radio station has been able to locate the person.
Wiggins was involved in discovering two earlier asteroids. In 1999, he and his then-wife, Holly Phaneuf, recorded one that he later named Elko in honor of his hometown in Nevada. Shortly afterward, he found a second asteroid, which she named.
Asteroid-discovery seemed easy at that time.
"I was thinking, 'Hey, this is going to be a fairly routine thing,"' Wiggins said in a telephone interview. So when KCPW held a fund drive early in 2000, he auctioned off naming rights to his next find, donating that honor so the station could bring in some cash.
The donor "paid the station quite a bit of money" and Wiggins searched for new asteroids. And searched. And searched.
Seven years passed without another asteroid to his credit.
He would observe tiny dots, representing space debris, that moved between the time he took one astronomical photo and the next exposure. But when he sent data to the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, the message always would come back that the object had been discovered earlier.
Meanwhile, the chance that an amateur could find a new asteroid was vanishing. Automated surveys carried out by big observatories were dragging in hundreds of images of orbiting rocks that had not been seen before, and they were duly recorded, reducing the available field.
Early this month, Wiggins was taking photographs of a large, known asteroid, when he found another dot moving between photos. He e-mailed observations to the Minor Planet Center with details about the location of this distant object. The center responded that no known asteroid seemed to be at that point.
But one night's observation does not a discovery make. The dot might have been a flaw in his computer processing or a bit of dust in his camera. "The camera can make errors which look very suspiciously like asteroids," he said.
The next night he again aimed his telescope and camera at the location which is in the astroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and the dot was there, although naturally it had moved. After the second night observing, Wiggins again contacted the center.
"There's about a third of a million known asteroids right now," he said. The center's computers searched through their database and tried to match this dot with a known asteroid. "It takes a while to go through the process," he said.
But word came back from the center that his observatory is now credited with the discovery of a third asteroid.
"After a certain period of time, which typically works out to a number of years, then you are given the option" to name the asteroid. Years are required to wait for the object to glide through an orbit or two, just to make certain it really is new and not simply the rediscovery of an asteroid that was found earlier.
"It's unlikely, but it is possible" an object was sighted earlier, Wiggins said.
Assuming that the unlikely doesn't happen, the donor will have the right to name the object. But the old e-mail address left by the donor is no longer valid.
Wiggins says he knows the donor's name, so it will be easy to verify the person's identity once contact is made.
"We're hoping that some reader of the Deseret (Morning) News will recognize themselves" and get in touch, he said.Donor: Contact Wiggins at his e-mail address, email@example.com.