Asteroids discovered at the Vainu Bappu Observatory named after two distinguished Indian scientists

The IAU Committee for Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN) has recently named two asteroids, among the ones discovered from the Vainu Bappu Observatory in Kavalur, after Professor M G K Menon and Professor J C Bhattacharyya. In January 1987, when Professor Bhattcharyya was the Director of IIA and Professor Menon, the Chairman of the IIA Council, Project Kalki was launched to survey and discover asteroids, comets and the elusive tenth planet of the Solar System. (cf. IIA Newsletter, Volume 4, October 1989.) The general scheme of the observational programme evolved through discussions with Professor Tom Gehrels of the University of Arizona, an authority on solar system objects, who was visiting IIA in connection with the bicentennial celebrations of the institute. A 45-cm Schmidt telescope at the Vainu Bappu Observatory was used for the survey. It had a field of view of 3° x 4° with a plate scale of 150 arc second per millimetre. According to Professor Gehrels's estimate, a project of this nature was to yield one or two earth-approaching asteroids, two Mars crossers and one comet per year. During the few years that Project Kalki was in operation, it discovered a total of six asteroids.

On February 17, 1988, the first discovery using the new facility was reported by R. Rajamohan, who led the project team consisting of K. Kuppuswamy, V. Moorthy and A. Paranjpye. This was also the first discovery of an asteroid from an Indian observatory in the twentieth century. Norman Pogson, who was the Government Astronomer in the Madras Observatory (the institution to which IIA traces its origin), had discovered no less than five asteroids from Madras between 1861 and 1885. The new asteroid, 1988 DQ1, was subsequently followed at VBO and a total of five positions were reported to the Minor Planet Center. The asteroid was recovered close to its predicted position (based on an orbit calculation programme developed by R. Vasundhara in IIA) on plates taken at VBO by Moorthy in May 1989. The asteroid was named Ramanujan after the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (M. P. C. 15 262, 1989 Oct. 14). Another five asteroids, discovered between 1988 and 1990 under the same project, were reported by Rajamohan to the Minor Planet Center and these were assigned the temporary names - 1988 DR, 1989 CD4, 1988 CA, 1988 BX and 1990 BC2. Their paths were followed at VBO for some time but the project wound up before these discoveries were confirmed.

All these asteroids subsequently received their numbers when their orbits were confirmed following the procedure of their recovery at predicted positions. Two of these, (4706) 1988 DR and (5178) 1989 CD4 were named Dennisreuter (M. P. C. 52766, 28 Sept. 2004) and Pattazhy (M. P. C. 56611, 2006 Apr. 13) respectively, after Dennis C. Reuter, a physical chemist in NASA, USA, and Sainudeen Pattazhy, an environmental scientist in India.

In May 2008, R Rajamohan proposed that the asteroid (8348) 1988 BX (M. P. C. 1998 Mar. 13) and the asteroid (7564) 1988 CA (M. P. C. 1997 Apr. 22) be named 'Bhattacharyya' and 'Gokumenon' respectively, after Professor J C Bhattacharyya and Professor M G K Menon for their support and encouragement to Project Kalki. In August 2008, Rajamohan's proposal received official approval by CSBN of IAU. (See M. P. C. 63639 dated Aug. 19, 2008).

'Gokumenon' and 'Bhattacharyya' now join Ramanujan (4130), Vainu Bappu (2596), Mrinalini (2986) and Sarabhai (2987), among the asteroids in the sky named after distinguished Indians.

- D. C. V. Mallik

Last updated on: November 20, 2020