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Museum experts honoured in space

17 August 2006

Asteroids in orbit between Mars and Jupiter have gained new identities this week, they have been named after four meteorite experts at the Natural History Museum.

Asteroid 6579 Benedix is named after Dr Gretchen Benedix, researcher in the Museum's Mineralogy Department.

Dr Benedix, honoured for her work on understanding the geological processes that affect asteroids, said 'Meteorites and asteroids offer us a glimpse of how the solar system formed and evolved. It really makes it that much more exciting to study when there's one named for you'.

Museum Scientific Associates, and staff members of the Dept. of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College, Dr Phil Bland, Dr Matthew Genge and Dr Mark Sephton also got asteroids with the names 6580 Philbland, 6626 Mattgenge, and 7552 Sephton.

They are among around 35 members of the Meteoritical Society honoured by the International Astronomical Union, which bestows asteroid names once every three years, in recognition of their contributions to the discipline. The asteroid names were announced at the 69th Annual Meteoritical Society meeting held in Zurich last week.

Minor planets

Asteroids, also known as minor planets, are any of the thousands of small rocky objects that orbit around the Sun, most of them between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter (although some pass closer to the Sun than Earth does and others have orbits that take them well beyond Jupiter).

The largest asteroid is one called Ceres - it's about as wide as the state of Texas or as long as England and Scotland combined. The asteroids mentioned above are all main belt asteroids.

Keep it in the family

There are now two members of the Benedix-Bland family in space as an asteroid has also been named after Dr Benedix' husband, Phil Bland. Benedix said 'It's great we got consecutive numbers.'

Dr Bland, honoured for his work on the origins of the solar system and on asteroid impacts, said 'It's funny to think there's a four-kilometre-wide rock out there with my name on it. Having studied impacts, I somehow can't help but hope that it might collide with something, preferably Mars or the Moon rather than the Earth. It would make a big bang.'

Other researchers and former members of staff of the Museum's Mineralogy Department who have asteroids named after them are Doctors Sara Russell (5497 Sararussell), Monica Grady (4731 Monicagrady) and Robert Hutchison (5308 Hutchison).

You can follow the orbits of your favourite researcher using the virtual orbit visualisation tool of NASA's Near Earth Object Programme .

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