What is a ‘minor planet’?
Minor planets are celestial objects orbiting the Sun that are not large enough for their gravity to pull them into a spherical shape. This distinguishes a minor planet — or a “small Solar System body”, which is now the preferred term — from planets or “dwarf planets”, which are almost spherical. Small Solar System bodies include asteroids, comets, and several other celestial objects that go around the Sun.
How are they named?
Names of celestial bodies are finally approved by a committee at the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a global organisation of professional astronomers, which also decides on definitions of fundamental astronomical and physical constants.
In the case of small Solar System bodies, the discoverer has the privilege to suggest the name. The discoverer holds this privilege for 10 years since the discovery. But there is a process to be followed, and not all names are acceptable.
Once it is determined that a celestial body is indeed new, a provisional name is given. This name has the year of discovery, two letters of the alphabet and, perhaps, two numbers. The minor planet that has been named after Pandit Jasraj was initially called ‘2006VP32’.
Once more information is available about the body, particularly its orbit, and after it has been sighted on at least four occasions, it is entitled to have a permanent number. In this case, the number allotted was 300128. Only after this is the discoverer invited to suggest a name.
What are the requirements of the name?
There are rules for nomenclature, and restrictions on the names that can be suggested. The proposed name must have 16 characters or less, it must be “non-offensive”, and not too similar to an existing name.
Names of political or military leaders can be suggested only 100 years after their death. The same applies for a political or military event. Names of pets, and names of a commercial nature are “discouraged”. There can be restrictions depending on where the body is located — for example, new objects discovered beyond Neptune are supposed to be given names of creation deities.
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