May 20, 2012

Maine professor attains fame that's out of this world

An asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter is now named for USM professor Julie Ziffer.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - It's pretty far away, easily spotted only a couple of months every year and a bit on the carbonaceous side, but it's got Julie Ziffer's name on it.

Not literally, but the chunk of rock and ice orbiting between Mars and Jupiter has acquired a moniker: 7909 Ziffer, named by the International Astronomical Union for the University of Southern Maine assistant professor of physics. The number indicates it was the 7,909th asteroid discovered.

Ziffer says she isn't quite sure why the IAU recognized her by naming an asteroid in her honor, since she has only received an email from a colleague alerting her and hasn't gotten any details of the reasoning behind the naming from the organization. Or a certificate suitable for framing, for that matter.

But it probably had something to do with a paper she collaborated on a couple of years ago that speculated that much of the water on Earth hitchhiked here as ice on asteroids that slammed into the young planet billions of years ago. Ziffer was part of the team that discovered ice on some asteroids, proving that the theory was possible.

When she learned that 7909 was hers, Ziffer naturally checked out the stretch of space real estate where the rock carrying her name was parked.

"I believe it's a good one," she said of the asteroid. "It's not on a collision course with Earth -- that's one of the first things I checked. It's like, you don't want a hurricane named after you."

Imagine the dirty looks on campus if it became clear that Ziffer's asteroid was about to obliterate everyone and everything. On the other hand, it would make finals seem pretty inconsequential.

Given her background, Ziffer has a good deal more insight into her asteroid than people who pay about $50, plus shipping and handling for an official parchment-like certificate, to get a star named for themselves. The list of names, by the way, is registered in the copyright office just like this newspaper, so it must be official!

In any case, Ziffer said her asteroid is a C-type, the same kind she studied when she helped determine that the surface of some asteroids carry around a not insignificant amount of ice as they circle the sun.

C-types, she said, are also called carbonaceous asteroids because they haven't been subjected to high heat and have retained their dark, coal-like surfaces.

The research she and her colleagues conducted suggests that one 500-kilometer ice-laden asteroid crashing into Earth might have carried enough water to fill an ocean or two. Of course, an asteroid that large also would wipe out most life on Earth, but that's the price to pay for keeping hydrated and creating a pretty nice business for the folks at Poland Spring.

Ziffer said asteroids farther out than hers, past Pluto -- which she noted, was demoted from the ranks of planets a few years ago by the same organization that named 7909 for her -- probably have more ice than her rock.

Ziffer said her asteroid is only visible a couple of months of the year and her chance to spot it this year with a backyard telescope probably zipped by a few weeks ago. She said she might still be able to see it with a major observatory telescope, but the people in charge of those frown on using their devices for trivial pursuits, such as finding heavenly bodies that are named for you.

"I can't really request time on a national telescope for that," she said, "although I want to."

Ziffer didn't plan on some major celebration to mark the honor.

She said on the night she found out about 7909 Ziffer, one of her two young daughters informed her that she was on the hook for taking a group of girls out for pizza. Not only that, it was going to be flatbread pizza.

Which is about as down-to-Earth a celebration as you can get.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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