10 Rock

By Phil Plait | November 23, 2010 10:04 am

Ten years ago tonight, an astronomer found a moving blip in his images. Not long after that, he found another one as well. I don’t know what he was thinking at that moment, though I imagine the thrill of discovery never goes away, no matter how many asteroids you discover, even when the whole idea of the project is to find them.

Initially called 2000 WB63 and 2000 WG11, he later named these asteroids 106537 McCarthy and 165347 Philplait. The first is named after Robynn "Swoopy" McCarthy, and the second… well, that’s obvious enough.

Jeff Medkeff was an astronomer, an educator, a skeptic, and a really decent guy. He contributed to the discovery or monitoring of thousands of asteroids before his untimely death in 2008. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to hang a bit with him at a skeptic conference or two, and I had a really fun conversation with him a few years back, when he wanted to name an asteroid after skeptic Rebecca Watson. It was then he admitted he wanted to name one after me as well; he had assumed that since I’d been a vocal advocate for astronomy for so long, I must already have a namsake asteroid. I didn’t, and so he named 2000 WG11 after me, something that makes me very proud.

He found the rock it on November 23, 2000, and quickly determined it was a main belt asteroid (click to see the orbit), something less than a mile across. It’s faint, but not too hard to observe, as amateur astronomer Rick Johnson showed:

Jeff died long, long before anyone should. But he left a lasting legacy, a solar system a little bit grander and more interesting than it was before he started observing it. For that I thank him, and, of course, for an honor I can only hope to live up to.

Tip o’ the gravity tug to Tim Farley.


Comments (16)

  1. “It’s a big rock. I can’t wait to tell my friends. They don’t have a rock this big. ”

    That’s exceedingly cool, Phil.

  2. Chris

    I hope your asteroid doesn’t ever collide with the Earth. People might think it’s just a publicity stunt for your book.

  3. Man, you need to wait another 20 years for this to really be a joke, and then it won’t be relevant anymore… 😉

    Hippo Birdie to the discovery.

  4. Joseph G

    Rest in peace, Mr. Medkeff. And from all of us, thank you.

  5. Keith Bowden

    “I got a rock.” – Charlie Brown, 1966

  6. Is it just me or do you seem to be posting an awful lot of obits lately?

    – Jack

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great to see footage of your asteroid, BA. :-)

    Sad to hear of Jeff Medkeff’s passing even if it was way back in August 2008. :-(

  8. RickJ

    Sorry Phil it’s not all that easy to observer. Right now “you’ are magnitude 22.0 per the estimate from the Minor Planet Center and 2.7 AU from earth and 2.8 AU from the sun. Visually I don’t know if you could see it in a 2 meter telescope. Even photographing it would be difficult for me now, a movie impossible. When I took the movie your asteroid was at magnitude 19.1 and only 1.1 AU from earth and 2.0 AU from the sun. Still you’d need a very large Dobsonian scope to see it visually. A one meter might have done it back then, 2009 02 24.12 UT for anyone that’s interested. It was much higher in the sky in Virgo then. Now it is low in Aquarius. Fine for folks south of the equator but down near my horizon in northern Minnesota.

    Even then making the video was extremely difficult. The asteroid only showed on Luminosity frames and not at all through the red, green and blue filters. So while the stars are in color I had to use only the luminosity images (black and white unfiltered) for the asteroid itself then that had to be enhanced greatly as a moving object stays on one pixel for only a short time not allowing many photons (about 40 in this case) to be collected by a single 18 micron pixel. All the enhancement of the asteroid makes it a little pixelated. I also did one of Swoopy’s asteroid (and Derek’s). Phil will be pleased to know his was brighter than theirs at the time I imaged them, but not by much.

    Philplat’s official naming citation reads:
    “Phil Plait (b. 1964) is an astronomer, educator and author, currently
    based in Colorado. Since 1998 Plait has educated the public and debunked
    astronomy myths and misconceptions through his popular website, books and
    media appearances.”

    But we all knew that.


  9. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wonder if any robot – or better yet human – missions or spacecraft will ever visit 165347 Philplait?

    You should see if you can pull a few strings with some of your NASA mates & get that done, BA! 😉

  10. DLC

    very cool to have a space rock named for you. now. . . what happens when my giant space lasers re-direct it toward the earth.
    From my secret lair, which is protected by Sharks, with Lasers.
    Oh okay, they’re sea bass, and the lasers are only laser pointers. There’s just no budget for
    quality these days!

  11. Jesper

    Does this mean that the asteroid is really yours? So when we’re going to mine asteroids someday, everything we find on there will be yours? There could be minerals etc. worth billions in your asteroid! :)

    Unfortunately it probably doesn’t really work that way… :(

  12. Jon Hanford

    “Right now “you’ are magnitude 22.0 per the estimate from the Minor Planet Center….”

    Hey, maybe this is your HST asteroid that you called Brian Marsden about (22nd mag & all)! If it was named after me, I’d be lobbying NASA about a possible future rendezvous mission, you know, so you could drop off a few books and DVDs for posterity. And who knows, you might have a nice chunk of nickel and iron ore you could divert and sock away for your retirement. :)

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Jon Hanford : Nice idea. :-)

    Only thing is that if we’re mining asteroids like 165347 Philplait for nickel and iron we’re bound to be mining lots of such asteroids and so the price of those elements is bound to be – and stay – really low. Supply and demand and all that, y’know. Sorry. :-(

    Still, I’m sure there’s other ways Phil could make money from his space rock! 😉

  14. Jon Hanford


    “Still, I’m sure there’s other ways Phil could make money from his space rock!”

    Theme Park? – “Plaitland…..World of Wonder!” :)

  15. JMW

    Or…asteroid 165347 Philplait could be used as the base for a deep space telescope…


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