At the request of Japanese scientists, an asteroid discovered by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) Project has been named for a man widely known in Japan as "Dr. Rocket."
Asteroid 1998SF36--the destination of the Japanese Muses-C space mission to bring a sample of an asteroid back to Earth--has been renamed Itokawa by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). It is named for the late Professor Hideo Itokawa, known as the father of space development in Japan.
While MIT has no direct involvement in Muses-C, Richard Binzel, professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, has made extensive ground-based studies of asteroid Itokawa and predicted the composition of the returned sample. Also, MIT's Center for Space Research and MIT Lincoln Laboratory have participated in several Japanese missions over the years and recently delivered X-ray cameras for Japan's Astro-E2 satellite, to be launched in February 2005.
LINEAR scans the skies to discover and catalog near-Earth asteroids and to provide advance warning of any that are bound for Earth. Since March 1998, LINEAR, whose principal investigator is Lincoln Lab associate division head Grant H. Stokes, has found 70 percent of all near-Earth asteroids discovered worldwide and is a major contributor to the NASA goal of cataloging 90 percent of those larger than 1 kilometer in diameter by 2008.
Whoever finds an asteroid has the right to recommend a name for it to an IAU committee for final approval. The Japanese research group in charge of the Muses-C spacecraft asked Lincoln Lab to offer the name Itokawa, which was recently approved.
Itokawa, who died in 1999, initialized space development efforts in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. A native of Tokyo, he was widely known in Japan as Dr. Rocket for his instrumental role in the early stages of Japan's space program.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 1, 2003.