ASU professors gain fame 360 billion kilometers from home

Asteroid (10461) Dawilliams, a Main Belt asteroid, was named after Professor Dave Williams. (Photo courtesy of Nikki Cassis)

Asteroid (10461) Dawilliams, a Main Belt asteroid, was named
after Professor Dave Williams. (Photo courtesy of Nikki Cassis)

Two ASU professors have joined the ranks of notable historical figures including Benjamin Franklin, Cleopatra, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

School of Earth and Space Exploration professors David Williams and Phil Christensen each have an asteroid named after them.

10461 Dawilliams, the name of Williams’s asteroid, resides in the main asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid is about 2.42 astronomical units from the sun. One astronomical unit is the distance from the Earth to the sun — 2.42 equals roughly 360 billion kilometers.

Dawilliams was formerly known as 1978 XU. It was discovered in December 1978 by E. Bowell and A. Warnock, Williams said in an email. The professor’s exemplary work with the NASA Dawn Mission distinguished him to receive the honor from the International Astronomical Union.

“NASA’s Dawn mission is the first to orbit two asteroids in the Main Belt, asteroids 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta,” Williams said. “My job on the Dawn at Vesta team was to supervise the geological mapping of the asteroid.”

By doing this, he said, a low-resolution global geologic map and 15 quadrangle geologic maps were constructed.

“I feel very honored and pleased to have done such great work on the Dawn Mission, that the team felt I deserved to be honored by the asteroid naming,” he said.

Although the Main Belt is located 1.42 AU from earth, asteroids have a big impact on our galaxy.

“Asteroids are the remains of the building blocks that formed the planets of our solar system,” Williams said. “By studying them, we can better understand how the solar system formed.”

The Main Belt is not the only belt of asteroids. The New Earth Asteroid Belt is only 1.3 AU from the sun, or about 45 billion kilometers from Earth.

“It is important to locate and map the orbits of these NEAs so that we can identify any potential asteroid collisions with Earth,” Williams said.

Asteroid (90388) Philchristensen, a Main Belt asteroid, was named after Professor Phil Christensen. (Photo courtesy of Nikki Cassis)

Asteroid (90388) Philchristensen, a Main Belt asteroid, was
named after Professor Phil Christensen. (Photo courtesy of Nikki
Cassis)

He added that most scientists concur that an asteroid strike killed the dinosaurs. Dawilliams, he said, does not have importance relevant to Earth that he can determine.

Phil Christensen’s asteroid, named 90388 Philchristensen, is also in the Main Belt. He received the honor from his work with NASA’s Mars Global Surveyer, and has constructed five instruments that have been used by NASA on missions to Mars.

Christensen was unavailable for comment.

Casey Thomas, the assistant director of student engagement and admission services with Future Sun Devils, said ASU now has nine faculty members with asteroids named after them.

“How bizarre is that? It’s just one of those things that when you’re thinking about accolades for your faculty and University, you don’t think about things in outer space named for them,” she said.

Electrical engineering sophomore Naveed Najam said that the out-of-this-world honor isn’t uncalled for.

“Being a teacher is one of the noblest things that you can do, so I don’t think any honor is too small for them,” he said.

Reach the reporter at logan.newman@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @Logan_Newsman