The recent sad loss of photographer, director and actor Leonard Nimoy is keenly felt by the millions of fans who loved the sci-fi character he shall always be most closely associated with — Star Trek‘s coolly logical and pointy-eared Vulcan science officer, Mr. Spock. As befits someone who toured the fictional Galaxy furthering scientific knowledge, astronomers have a tangible reminder of the starship Enterprise‘s first officer in the form of an asteroid that will always bear his name.
James B. Gibson discovered 2309 Mr. Spock (1971 QX1) from Yale-Columbia Station at El Leoncito, Argentina on 16th August 1971. It soon became apparent that this was a main-belt asteroid between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, orbiting 3 astronomical units from the Sun every 5.23 years. Subsequent analysis revealed that 2309 Mr. Spock is a 13-mile (21-kilometre)-wide body rotating on its axis every 6.7 hours.
Gibson caused an uproar with the International Astronomical Union after deciding to name the newly-discovered space rock Mr. Spock, not because it was after a fictional character (after all, asteroid 3325 TARDIS is named for a certain time-travelling doctor and 18610 Arthurdent after the hero of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Rather, the furore arose because he named it after his feline companion on astronomical expeditions in the United States, Africa, and South America. According to Gibson, Mr. Spock the cat was “imperturbable, logical, intelligent, and had pointed ears” just like his namesake. The IAU subsequently decided that pet names were not suitable for asteroids.
An astroimaging challenge
Although some way past opposition and currently hovering around 17th magnitude, 2309 Mr. Spock presently lies slightly less than 5° south of Aldebaran in Taurus. Since this area of sky sets around midnight in the UK, you should make your attempt as soon as astronomical twilight ends (approximately 8:30 pm GMT for the centre of the British Isles) over the coming week before the Moon returns to the evening sky.If you miss imaging 2309 Mr. Spock this time round, the asteroid reaches opposition in early March 2016 when it will lie in southern Leo and a slightly easier target at 15th magnitude.
Addendum: as I was writing this I heard the equally sad news of Sir Terry Pratchett’s death on 12th March, a loss keenly felt by the millions who loved his sci-fi and fantasy novels. Did you know that the Discworld’s creator and prolific author was also a keen amateur astronomer? In fact, Sir Terry originally wanted to pursue a career in astronomy, but didn’t feel his maths was up to it. He had a private observatory at his home in Wiltshire. Fittingly, main-belt asteroid 127005 Pratchett (2002 GY1), discovered by J. Dellinger and W. G. Dillon on 1st April 2002, is named after him. Currently on the border of Cetus and Aries and glimmering at magnitude 21, 127005 Pratchett reaches opposition in January 2016.