Asteroid 15632 Magee-Sauer honors her work. Astronomy prof praised from Earth to the heavens

Posted: July 20, 2003

It's a big chunk of rock, no more than seven kilometers in diameter.

And until this year, it didn't have a name.

But now that it does, it's highly unlikely that anyone is going to complain.

After all, no one lives on this particular piece of real estate in the universe, at least no one that scientists peering through the telescope at Lowell Observatory's Anderson Mesa Station can see.

Such a small piece of real estate - it's in the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, about 200 million miles from the sun - is impossible to see unless you have the type of equipment found at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

Take Karen Magee-Sauer's word for it: Asteroid 15632 is up there.

Since formation of the universe about 4.5 billion years ago until earlier this year, Asteroid 15632 had moved nameless through space.

Asteroid 15632, discovered in 2000 at the Lowell Observatory, is still moving in a nearly circular orbit around the sun, but with a new name: 15632 Magee-Sauer.

Magee-Sauer, an astronomy professor at Rowan University, has studied comets at the Keck Observatory, on Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii, as well as other spots around the world. The International Astronomical Union's Committee for Small Body Nomenclature named the asteroid for her to honor her contributions to astronomy.

Asteroids are leftover bits of material that didn't get combined into planets when the universe was formed, and there are several hundred thousand of them, many yet unnamed and more being discovered each year, Magee-Sauer said.

"When asteroids are found, they are numbered and later named, frequently after people who have made a contribution to the field of astronomy," said Magee-Sauer, who lives in Boothwyn, Delaware County. "It's quite an honor."

Magee-Sauer, 42, currently on sabbatical, has taught at Rowan since 1989. In addition to teaching, she collaborates with scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Her research is supported through grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA. Later this month, she is scheduled to give a presentation in Australia at the International Astronomical Union on infrared studies of comets, and this fall she plans to travel to Hawaii to study Comet Encke, which makes an appearance every three years.

She has studied every bright comet since Comet Halley in 1986, the topic of her doctoral dissertation.

Although comets are named after the person discovering them - the English astronomer Edmond Halley is probably the most famous - asteroid names are more eclectic. Those discovering an asteroid usually get to name it, which is why there are asteroids named Manhattan and Perth Amboy.

Joe Montani, a planetary scientist in Arizona, picked Perth Amboy because that is where he was born and Manhattan because that is the site of the physics building at Columbia University where he studied astronomy.

Others are named after scientists, such as Magee-Sauer, who have made contributions to the field, and also after politicians, rock stars, classical musicians, even cities and countries.

15632 Magee-Sauer, on the list between Magdalena and Magellan, has notable celestial company.

John Lennon is up there and so, too, are the other Beatles. Duke Ellington has been immortalized, as have Mahler, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Homage has been paid to the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov and the astronomer Carl Sagan. Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the the moon, has an asteroid and so does Mr. Rogers.

Fans of George W. Bush must wait awhile before an asteroid is named for the president because the naming committee insists that a politician be dead for at least 100 years before being nominated.

As for Elvis, you'll find him on Asteroid 17059.

Contact suburban staff writer Louise Harbach at 856-779-3861 or lharbach@phillynews.com.

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