Mary Lou Whitehorne was at a work conference in 2007 when her colleagues surprised her with an asteroid.
They were at an annual meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in Calgary. Whitehorne, a member of the organization and a longtime science educator, was standing outside of a pub, engaged in a conversation, when a coworker called her inside. He had a special announcement to make: A small asteroid, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, had been named after Whitehorne.
“I was completely floored and completely speechless,” Whitehorne says.
Whitehorne’s colleagues had waited about two years for the name to be approved. Asteroids can’t be named for just anything or anyone; there’s a careful selection process with lots of rules, managed by an international organization in charge of collecting and sorting observational data for asteroids. The organization is the Minor Planet Center, which is run out of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts, and under the purview of the International Astronomical Union, an organization of professional astronomers.
The first asteroids to be discovered, in the early 1800s, were named for figures in Roman and Greek mythology, like Ceres, Pallas, and Vesta. Astronomers ran out of those options fairly quickly, so they started looking elsewhere. Today, most asteroids are named for people, both real and fictional, and the rest for places, animals, plants, and other natural phenomena. The discoverers of asteroids are responsible for proposing the names—but there are rules, and their proposals can get denied.