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News Service
Cornell University

Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander, Jr.
Office: (607) 255-3290

FOR RELEASE: July 28, 1999

Minor planet joins the Ivy League: now it's officially 'asteroid Cornell'

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Far above Cayuga's waters -- really far above -- a once-obscure asteroid discovered nearly two decades ago has a new name: Cornell.

"I have a distinct and unique gift to offer to Cornell University which will increase the size of its campus. It's a piece of celestial real estate," the asteroid's discoverer, astronomer Ted Bowell, told celebrants Sunday at the opening ceremony of the International Conference on Asteroids, Comets and Meteors (ACM) being hosted at the university. "I suppose that once a minor planet has been given to Cornell, in reality Cornell can now go to it, and stick a flag a on it."

The asteriod and Cornell University appear to be cosmic soul mates. Asteroid Cornell cruises around the sun every five and a half years, according to Brian Marsden of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and "it's inclined at 17 degrees, so it's highly inclined and slightly eccentric."

Asteroids, also known as minor planets, inhabit a belt around the sun that is located between Mars and Jupiter, about 250 million miles from Earth. There are possibly tens of thousands of these large, rocky chunks which astronomers speculate are planets that never coagulated. In order for a celestial body to receive a numerical and then later an official name, the orbit has to be confirmed. The orbits of fewer than 20,000 asteroids have been recorded.

When minor planet Cornell was discovered by Bowell -- an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona and one of the world's most prolific asteroid discoverers -- on Sept. 2, 1980, he was using the same telescope that astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to discover the planet Pluto about 50 years earlier. Bowell's new asteriod was designated 1980 RP.

Asteroids are initially designated by the year of discovery followed by two letters. The first letter shows the part of the month when it was found ("A" is the first two weeks of January, "B" is the second two weeks of January, and so forth.) The second letter designates the sequence in which the asteroid was found.

Sometimes when hundreds of asteroids are found in a month, the IAU, located in Cambridge, Mass., goes through the alphabet several times and designates a number. Such was the case with minor planet Cornell. This asteroid was re-discovered in 1991 and became the 332nd one found in the first two weeks of August that year. Thus, it was designated 1991 PG-13.

Bowell, recognizing the orbits of 1980 RP and 1991 PG-13, linked the two and found they were one and the same, thus qualifying the asteroid for a permanent numerical designation and a name. The IAU, the world's official planet nomenclature authority, dubbed it 8250 and as of today (July 28, 1999), it also will be officially called Cornell.

The official IAU citation for the new minor planet reads: "Named for Cornell University on the occasion of hosting the Asteroids, Comets and Meteors Conference July 1999. Cornell was founded in Ithaca, New York in 1865 by Ezra Cornell. It is an acknowledged center for discovery, academic leadership and service. In a very real sense, it is a world treasure. The university operates the Arecibo Observatory, the premiere science center for radio astronomy in the world and continues to play a leading role in the exploration of minor planets."

Along with the university, 60 other asteroid names are being announced today to honor participants and organizers of the ACM, including 12 people from Cornell. They are: Malcolm Bilson, professor of music, asteroid 7387 Malbil; Peter C. Thomas, astronomy senior research associate, 8086 Peterthomas; James Bell III, assistant professor of astronomy, 8146 Jimbell; Elizabeth Bilson, administrative director of space sciences, 5134 Ebilson; Beth Ellen Clark, astronomy research associate, 7994 Bethellen; Joseph Harrington, astronomy research associate, 5034 Joeharrington; Paul Helfenstein, astronomy senior research associate, 8067 Helfenstein; Jonathan Joseph, astronomy programmer analyst, 5406 Joseph; Mary Roth, astronomy administrative assistant, 5595 Roth; Damon Simonelli, astronomy research associate, 8071 Simonelli; and Brian Carcich, astronomy programmer analyst, 8262 Carcich.

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