Asteroid named after Auburn faculty member for contributions to planetary science

Asteroid named after Auburn faculty member for contributions to planetary science
Auburn University's Masatoshi Hirabayashi says he believes his published research on a comet led to the honor of an asteroid being named for him. His lab is collaborating with NASA on missions involving asteroids and other small bodies. (Auburn University)

An Auburn University faculty member has joined an elite group of scientists and engineers whose contributions to planetary science have warranted an asteroid naming.

Masatoshi Hirabayashi, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, was honored with the asteroid naming at the “Asteroids, Comets, Meteors 2017” conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, earlier this year. Hirabayashi’s asteroid, 11471 Toshihirabayashi, was discovered on March 6, 1981, at the Siding Spring observatory in Australia by astronomer Schelte Bus.

After the discovery of an asteroid, it is given a temporary name and then a catalog number when its orbit is more accurately determined. The International Astronomical Union’s committee on small body nomenclature is in charge of selecting asteroid names based on contributions to planetary science.

This asteroid, discovered in the 1800s, was named Ida after a nymph from classical mythology. These days, a committee of the International Astronomical Union names asteroids for people who have made contributions to planetary science. The latest is Auburn University’s Masatoshi Hirabayashi. (NASA)

“Having an asteroid name is a rare and tremendous honor for scientists and engineers,” Hirabayashi said. “I am humbled that the committee placed such great value on my work, and I aim to continue producing influential research results in this area.”

Hirabayashi’s work focuses on astronautics and geophysical modeling for small planetary bodies and planetary surface processes, specifically the dynamics and structure of these small bodies. He believes his study on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which was published in Nature, was a large factor in the selection of his asteroid name.

Hirabayashi plans to travel to Israel in February to observe his asteroid with a colleague who is an astronomer.

Hirabayashi’s Space Technology Application Research, or STAR, lab is collaborating with NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on missions that involve asteroids and other small bodies, such as the DART mission and the Hayabusa 2 mission.

“In space missions, a better understanding of natural phenomena in space will help us develop innovative technologies and solve challenging problems,” Hirabayashi said. “I would like to conduct interdisciplinary research for critical space missions, such as asteroid mining and deflection.”

Hirabayashi joined the Auburn Engineering faculty in August after spending two years as a postdoctoral associate at Purdue University. He earned his doctorate in aerospace engineering sciences from the University of Colorado Boulder.

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