British Columbia

New minor planet named after B.C. First Nation

After more than 10 years of work with a telescope, a Victoria astronomer honours the Tsawout First Nation with their own minor planet.

Naming process took over a decade of math

This orbital projection shows Tsawout's journey in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Vancouver Island's Tsawout First Nation now has a presence among the stars.

After years of work, Victoria astronomer Dave Balam has pinpointed and named a minor planet in honour of the First Nation.

Tsawout, also known as 402920, is about two kilometres in diameter and is located in our solar system's asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Balam — who has named about four dozen celestial bodies in his career — said he named the space rock, Tsawout, partly because of his admiration for the First Nation.

"The people of Tsawout have maintained their traditions all this time, for hundreds of years," said Balam.

"Regardless of famines, floods, starvation or all the bad things that happen to people over the years."

Lights in the sky

Balam said one of the traditional beliefs of the Tsawout people is that when someone dies, they go to the heavens and become lights in the sky.

"These are the eyes of the people looking down upon us. And so now they have yet another, 402920 Tsawout."

The Tsawout First Nation is now forever commemorated among the stars. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Balam presented a plaque commemorating the new name to Harvey Underwood, Chief of the Tsawout First Nation, during the Canadian Astronomical Society's 49th annual conference in Victoria this week.

Before the hundreds of assembled scientists and astronomers, Underwood thanked Balam for his hard work, which began in 2007 when Balam first spotted the asteroid, also known as a minor planet.

Naming a celestial body is much more difficult than people think.

Balam said the familiar practice of "buying" a star and naming it after someone is a scam, as the name isn't officially catalogued or recognized by astronomers or any recognized astronomical association.

The criteria for actually naming something in space involves five to 20 years of precise calculations, he said.

The object's calculated trajectory must be so well plotted, that if someone set up a telescope in 50 years, they would be able to pinpoint exactly where it was, based on Balam's prediction.

The object's trajectory projection must then be cleared by the International Astronomical Union, before they will accept suggestions for a name.

Balam said he also chose the name Tsawout because his family can trace its lineage back to the community which is one of five bands that constitute the Saanich Nation.

With files from On the Island

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