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NASA Marshall Center Astronomers' Names Are Now 'in The Stars' With Asteroids Bearing Their Names
08.31.05
 
Steve Roy
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
(Phone: 256.544.0034)

News release: 05-147


Dr. Rob Suggs and Dr. Bill Cooke How do you get an asteroid named after you? Just ask two astronomers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Their names are now "in the stars."

Dr. Bill Cooke and Dr. Rob Suggs have learned that two big "rocks" orbiting the Sun nearly 300 million miles away between Mars and Jupiter -- and posing no threat to Earth -- now bear their names. The scientists were notified of the honor recently by the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.

Teams that discover an asteroid can submit any name for it to the Minor Planet Center. The Minor Planet Center distributes lists of newly named asteroids every two months. The team that discovered the Cooke and Suggs asteroids was familiar with their work for NASA in the field of meteor showers.

"It's kind of cool knowing there's a six-mile-wide rock in our solar system with my name on it," says Bill Cooke, a meteor shower forecaster in the Marshall Center's Engineering Directorate. "I don't own it," he says with a laugh, "but someday maybe I can visit there."

Since its discovery in 1998, Cooke's asteroid was simply known as 15058. It's now officially known as "Bill Cooke."

Suggs' asteroid, discovered in 2000, was dubbed "Suggs," since no other asteroid shares his name. "Suggs" is about three miles wide, but has a lower number than Cooke's -- 14727 -- which, according to astronomical tradition, is said to be more prestigious. "I don't mind that Suggs' asteroid has a lower number," says Cooke. "Mine is larger and it matches my personality -- far out and eccentric."

There's no rivalry between these astronomers. After all, they grew up in Rossville, Ga., and have been friends since middle school. They both attended Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Ga. Suggs received his bachelor of science degree in 1977. Cooke's bachelor of science was earned in 1979. They parted ways, albeit temporarily, for their doctorates. Cooke received his in astronomy from the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1993. Suggs' doctorate in astronomy was earned from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces in 1984.

They never dreamed they'd end up together again working for NASA.

"When we were in middle school, we wished we could be involved in the space program," says Suggs. "Three things -- NASA's Apollo missions, 'Star Trek' on television and the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey' -- all convinced me I had to be in the space business." Suggs, who went to work for NASA in 1994 in the International Space Station Program Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, is a planetary astronomer. He joined the Marshall Center in 1998, working with the meteoroid space environments group.

Cooke's expertise is in astrometry -- the study of star and planet positions in the solar system. Cooke came to Marshall in 1995 as a contractor with Physitron, Inc., based in Huntsville, where he worked with the International Space Station's collision avoidance schemes. In 2004, Cooke joined the civil service. Today, he and Suggs work together in the Spacecraft and Vehicle Systems Department of the Engineering Directorate at Marshall.

Their names are well-known in the astronomical community. In 2001, Cooke implemented a method for meteor shower forecasting called the meteor stream model. This computer model is used to forecast meteor shower activity specific to the orbits of spacecraft such as the Space Shuttle and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory -- the world's most powerful X-ray telescope. Data gleaned from Cooke's system is used to protect these spacecraft from potentially damaging meteoroids. Meteor showers are produced when bits of comet or asteroid debris, usually between the size of a sand grain and a pebble, enter the Earth's atmosphere and burn up, creating a brief streak of light.

To test the model's accuracy, Suggs waits for clear, dark nights -- the best to view meteors -- and joins Cooke and others to observe the predicted meteor showers. To reel in the meteor data, Suggs developed observational techniques, such as the use of night-vision cameras and radar. Yet he still sees the value of observations with the naked eye. "Eyeballs are still an effective way to observe," adds Suggs.

Their predictions and accuracy led to their names on asteroids. And the distinction puts the two astronomers in impressive company. The Beatles, Shakespeare and several astronauts have asteroids bearing their names.

Both astronomers have received numerous awards during their careers at NASA, including the Silver Snoopy -- presented for outstanding performance contributing to flight safety and mission success. In 2002, Suggs received a NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal for his work with processing real-time meteor data for spacecraft during the 1999 Leonids meteor shower, which makes an appearance in our skies every 33 years. And for an astronomer, an asteroid bearing your name ranks with those accomplishments.

"The idea there is a huge rock flying around in the asteroid belt with my name is a romantic notion," says Suggs. "I see it as a family heirloom that can be passed on through generations."


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