A new, official competition allows anyone to propose a mythology-based name for a “quasi-moon,” an asteroid that orbits the Sun alongside Earth.

Quasi-moon naming contest logo
International Astronomical Union

It’s not every day that just anyone can propose a name that will be officially attached to a celestial body, but now’s your chance.

The International Astronomical Union, in collaboration with the public radio station WNYC in New York, is sponsoring a competition to provide an official name for an asteroid, the one known for now simply as 164207 (2004 GU9). This asteroid is currently in resonance with Earth’s orbit, in a way that makes it appear to orbit around us. In reality, it isn’t gravitationally bound to Earth at all but rather orbits the Sun with the same period as Earth. Earth has seven known quasi-moons like this one, of which only one has received a name so far.

The competition came about after Latif Nasser, co-host of the public radio science series Radiolab, was intrigued by a poster on his child’s bedroom wall, which seemed to depict Venus as having a moon named Zoozve. That turned out to be a mistake by the poster artist, who had misread the name of a Venusian quasi-moon designated as 2002 VE68. Intrigued by this odd little object, Nasser became fascinated by the whole process of how celestial objects get their names. Eventually, he succeeded in getting the object officially named Zoozve by the IAU’s Working Group for Small Bodies Nomenclature.

“I had so much fun naming this quasi-moon,” Nasser tells Sky & Telescope. And he decided he’d like to share that fun. “Now it’s your turn to name one,” he says, “not one of Venus’s, but one of Earth’s.”

He explains that while going through the long process of getting the name Zoozve approved, he and his cohost, Lulu Miller, thought that, as a plan B, maybe they could sponsor a contest to come up with a name for another such object. Then, when to their surprise Zoozve did get approved, he recounts “we’re like, why don’t we do our Plan B anyway?”

Gareth Williams, secretary of the IAU working group, agreed to the idea. So did that group’s Office for Astronomy Outreach, which is the body designated to handle such naming competitions as part of a new policy adopted a few years ago. Until then, there had been a number of small, informal contests for the naming of asteroids, Williams explains, but “they tended to be rather local in scope.” The IAU “didn’t really have any input into the decision process” other than approving or rejecting the suggested name in the end, he adds. “We’d either go ‘yes, that’s a wonderful suggestion,’ or ‘in your dreams!’”

The rules for the new contetst stipulate that the name must come from a mythological source and not be associated with any currently widely practiced religion. The mythology can be real or fictional, so yes, Lord of the Rings is an acceptable source, Williams confirms. Every suggested name must be accompanied by a brief description of the name’s source and the reason for the choice.

Already, more than 500 submissions have been received, but the competition is still open through September 30th. A panel of judges (including both Williams and Nasser) will winnow the list of submissions down to 10 finalists. These will all be pre-approved by the nomenclature working group, so that whichever one is ultimately chosen is guaranteed to be accepted by the IAU. Then, in November and December, the list of finalists will be released to the public, who will vote on the final name. That name will be made public in January 2025.

“We’ve been getting a lot of Celtic names, a lot of African names from African religions, names from Native American mythologies,” Williams says. “I expect we’ll be getting more from Australasia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific region before we finish up.” Word of the competition is just beginning to spread internationally.

Choosing the Quasi-Moon

The subject of this contest, 2004 GU9, was discovered by a survey program called Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR), a collaboration between the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. It’s about 500 feet across and belongs to the Apollo group of asteroids. It’ll be Earth’s quasi-moon until around AD 2600.

Besides 2004 GU9, the LINEAR project found more than 230,000 objects, of which 2,423 were near-Earth asteroids. Most of these remain nameless. Discoverers have the privilege of suggesting an asteroid’s moniker to the IAU, but when it comes to large, semi-automated surveys, there are simply too many discoveries to name. The LINEAR team readily agreed to pass the naming rights for this object on to the competition.

Among Earth’s seven recognized quasi-moons, only one of them has an official name: Kamo’oalewa. Three of the rest don’t have orbits established well enough for the objects to receive a name. But of the remaining three, why 2004 GU9?

“They’re all kind of the same,” Nasser says, “which is to say they’re all little gray potatoes.”

But when Williams showed him one with “the weirdest orbit,” he was hooked. “The way it moves relative to Earth was so strange,” he explains. “If you looked at it from different angles, it sort of looked like different shapes, like maybe a butterfly or a saddle.” The beauty of the orbit’s shape over time inspired Nasser to pick “that one . . . the one that really looks like it’s dancing.”

Quasi-moon orbit
In this animation, Earth provides the frame of reference and is therefore at center and still. The magenta line shows the progression of the trajectory of 2004 GU9 relative to Earth; note that the asteroid only appears to be orbiting Earth, it actually orbits the Sun.
Phoenix7777 / Wikimedia Commons; Data source: HORIZONS System / JPL / NASA

Nasser’s goals for the contest go beyond the name itself. “We can all go on this mission together . . . marvel both at the sky and at our collective myths, our human past, all the stories we’ve all told together.”

Besides, he adds, “This is some nerdy fun. Some sweet, nerdy fun.”

Find detailed rules for the competition here, and put your own name in the suggestion box here.


Image of Andrew James

Andrew James

June 20, 2024 at 5:53 pm

Here a good name. Just call Quasi or Qazi.

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