LINEAR is honored as a region on asteroid Itokawa

What's in a name? For a celestial body, its name is its international reference, identifying it not only to the scientific community but also to every amateur astronomer or devoted stargazer in the world. For this reason, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) administers a process that provides internationally accepted, unambiguous nomenclature for astronomical bodies and their surface features. On 19 February, the IAU named a region on the minor planet (commonly referred to as an asteroid) Itokawa in honor of MIT Lincoln Laboratory's Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) Program, which discovered this asteroid on 26 September 1998.

As the discoverer of the asteroid, Lincoln Laboratory/LINEAR had the privilege of suggesting its name. LINEAR—in response to a request from Japan's Institute of Space and Astronomical Science, now part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)—asked that the IAU name the asteroid after Dr. Hideo Itokawa, a preeminent figure in the Japanese space program. This asteroid was the target of the sample-return mission of the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa. In August 2003, the IAU approved the name Itokawa.  

Since then, the Hayabusa, which is scheduled to return to Earth in 2010, has rendezvoused with Itokawa and has transmitted significant data on the asteroid to JAXA. Approximately 1500 photographs of Itokawa, taken in seven wavelength regions of visible light, have been sent. JAXA has used the images not only to identify topographic features of Itokawa but also to provide estimations of the asteroid's mineral composition. Because of Hayabusa's photographic contributions to astronomy, the IAU has granted JAXA's requests to name 14 features of Itokawa. In recognition of the Laboratory's discovery of the asteroid, JAXA submitted the name LINEAR for a region in the larger end of Itokawa.

Photo of asteroid ItokawaVarious views of asteroid Itokawa. In February, 10 craters and 4 regions of Itokawa were officially named. The region named for LINEAR is highlighted by the yellow circle. Itokawa measures 500 meters by 300 meters and travels in an elliptical orbit between the orbits of Earth and Mars. (Photo courtesy of JAXA)

The LINEAR program uses a pair of ground-based electro-optical deep-space surveillance telescopes, located on the White Sands Missile Range in Socorro, New Mexico, to detect and catalog near-Earth asteroids. The program originated as a new application of technology developed by the Laboratory to provide the U.S. Air Force with enhanced capability to track spacecraft. Since its inception, LINEAR has discovered more than half of all the world's identified near-Earth asteroids. LINEAR has also become the leading ground-based discoverer of comets, with more than 150 comets now named "LINEAR."

In addition, through a partnership with the Society for Science & the Public, Lincoln Laboratory/LINEAR promotes science education for students in fifth through twelfth grades. Under a program called the Ceres Connection, minor planets discovered by LINEAR are named by the IAU in honor of both students who achieve top recognition in science competitions sponsored by the Society and the teachers who mentor them.

Posted April 2009


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