The asteroids zinging around our solar system have largely been named for their discoverers, or for famous people like Ella Fitzgerald, Vincent Van Gogh and the Beatles. Now, 40 middle-school science students from across the country and their teachers can claim the honor as well, thanks to MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
Last week, 40 finalists competed in Washington, D.C., for the title of "America's Top Young Scientist of the Year" in the third annual Discovery Young Scientist Challenge, a national middle school science contest. Each of the 40 students received a certificate officially acknowledging their link to an extraterrestrial piece of real estate. Each student's science teacher was similarly honored.
Andrew Hager, 12, of Venice, Fla., said that he was really excited to have an asteroid named for him: "Now, when kids say their father has a Ferrari, I can say, 'Well, I've got an asteroid!'"
Lincoln Lab has discovered thousands of near-Earth asteroids, or minor planets, since 1998 via the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program. LINEAR currently detects about 70 percent of the asteroids discovered every year.
David L. Briggs, director of Lincoln Laboratory and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has long wanted to encourage science education in the middle and secondary schools. Together with Grant Stokes, LINEAR's principal investigator and a Lincoln Lab associate division head, they came up with the idea of naming minor planets for top science students and their teachers in grades five through 12.
To find potential honorees, Stokes approached Science Service, which organizes three major science competitions for students, including the Discovery Young Scientist Challenge, which is the first science challenge to include the asteroid honor. Stokes himself is a former high school science fair winner in New Mexico.
Lincoln Lab and Science Service plan to expand the honor to students and mentors for other competitions, including the Intel Science Talent Search and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
In addition to the official certificates, the students and teachers, who come from 18 states, received information on how to find their asteroids in the sky. Stokes noted, however, that honorees will have to go to an observatory to see their namesakes, as the asteroids are too tiny to detect with the naked eye or a standard telescope. But size is relative. "Each asteroid is several kilometers in diameter, which is a pretty big piece of real estate," he said.
"It's really incredible to know that now there's a big chunk of rock floating around in space that's got my name on it," said Branson Sparks, 14, of Alexandria, La., winner of last week's contest and the Discovery Young Scientist of the Year. "I'm sure my friends won't believe me when I tell them about this."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 31, 2001.