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Asteroid named for Goddard Astronomer!

Years spent charting a shadow dance between the Moon and the Sun paid off for NASA astronomer Fred Espenak with an asteroid that bears his name.

The organization that assigns official names to celestial objects, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), designated "minor planet 14120" as "Espenak" in the Smithsonian Astrophysics Center Minor Planet Circular #48157, issued March 18.

"It's quite an honor to have a piece of real estate in the solar system named after you," said Espenak, who is a world-renowned authority on solar eclipse predictions at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. " I have to be humble, though, because it's a small piece, probably just 5 to 10 miles in diameter," he adds with a laugh.

The IAU cited Espenak as "widely recognized for his calculations of solar eclipses, his magnificent maps of these phenomena, and his book 'Totality: Eclipses of the Sun'."

Asteroid Espenak is mysterious because it is a faint object, making observatio ns to determine its shape and composition difficult. "One of the things I'll probably do when I retire is try to take its picture from my observatory," said Espenak. It was discovered on August 27, 1998 by the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search using a 60-centimeter (24-inch) Schmidt telescope from Anderson Mesa, Arizona.

The most recent close approach of asteroid Espenak was on 2002 November 22 when it was 178 million kilometers (111 million miles) from Earth.           Presently, the asteroid is an 18th magnitude object in the constellation Taurus, which is visible throughout the spring during the early evening hours.

Espenak learned that two friends from Belgium had nominated him: Dr. Jean Meeus, an expert in orbital mechanics, and Patrick Poitevin, an amateur astronomer who organizes international conferences of professional and amateur astronomers to discuss the state of eclipse science and solar physics research. "I guess they both appreciated the eclipse work I do," said Espenak.

Espenak considers himself fortunate to have a job so closely related to his passion: observing and photographing solar eclipses. He will travel to Iceland in May for an annular eclipse (a partial eclipse where a ring-shaped portion of the Sun remains), and to Antarctica in November aboard a Russian icebreaker for a total eclipse.

Espenak publishes the definitive guide to solar eclipses, the NASA eclipse bulletin, for every total and annular eclipse with colleague Jay Anderson of the University of Manitoba, Canada. The bulletins include detailed maps of the eclipse path, with voluminous information about the location, viewing conditions, and climate along the path for eclipse chasers. Also included are tips on how to view eclipses safely and photograph them successfully. Espenak posts this information on the  NASA  website.


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Spears Travel is leading the way in astronomy-related tours and we invite you to take a look at our current list of adventures and some photos from past trips.   You won't want to miss our group astronomy travel!

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