By Emma Castleberry
Hundreds of thousands of asteroids roam our solar system, and these rocky bodies are not easy to name. Unlike a comet, an asteroid must be observed multiple times over the years to be submitted to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) for name consideration. “Imagine my surprise when I was bestowed with this honor,” says Randy Flynn, an amateur astronomer who operates the Squirrel Valley Observatory (SVO) in Western North Carolina. The IAU recently named Minor Planet 2016 EV243 “Randyflynn (522563)” in recognition of Flynn’s research efforts. “While I had no request in the matter, I am proud that my efforts and determination through the years have brought me to this point of recognition in my life,” he says.
As a child, Flynn was fascinated by the early achievements of the American space program. “By the age of ten I had memorized all of the constellations, many of the messier objects and could point out any of the ones visible from our area,” he says. “I moved up from an old pair of binoculars to small telescopes as time progressed, and I began observing the brighter deep sky objects and the planets.”
Flynn’s lifelong dream of owning an observatory came true in the summer of 2015 when he completed construction of his backyard, roll-off roof observatory in Columbus. Flynn used the observatory to hone his hobby of night-sky imaging, but he was hungry to contribute more to the astronomical sciences. “After some research, I found that one of the most desirable fields of research for me and the equipment I possessed at the time was the field of asteroid astrometry,” he says. He uses the Wikipedia definition to explain that astrometry “is the branch of astronomy that involves precise measurements of the positions and movements of stars and other celestial bodies.”
Flynn began observing large, bright asteroids and submitting his data to the IAU Minor Planet Center (MPC). In September of 2016, the SVO earned a unique observatory code, W34, for its endeavors in the tracking and detection of minor planets, including hazardous asteroids and other Near-Earth Objects (NEOs).
“It is here where astrometric data collected from observatories all over the world can help define an object’s orbit, thus confirming or ruling out any possible collisions with earth,” says Flynn. “As I perfected my workflow, I began to narrow down my tracking criteria even more.” New NEOs are discovered every night, most often by four large facilities in Arizona, California and Hawaii. “But their primary job is discovery, not confirmation,” says Flynn. “That is where amateurs and other professionals alike come in. Observatories like Squirrel Valley Observatory, quickly, usually within hours of discovery, lock onto these newly discovered objects and begin tracking their movements. These ‘confirmation observations’ are then quickly submitted to the Minor Planet Center and analyzed.” The analysis of this data helps to determine orbit, which ultimately allows for an early alert system if any of these objects pose a threat to Earth. “Currently, after three years of data submission, SVO is ranked 80th in the world out of nearly 600 observatories for all-time discovery confirmation observations,” says Flynn.
Flynn’s friends at the Catalina Sky Survey, one of the large facilities responsible for most NEO discoveries, nominated him for the naming designation from IAU. “It is truly a privilege to be recognized by one of the major large sky surveys and especially humbling to be honored by the IAU and MPC by having an asteroid named for myself,” says Flynn. “It is my hope that my determination to achieve a lifelong goal will one day serve as an inspiration to others to never give up on their dreams and that the rewards can often exceed those originally imagined.”
For more information about the Squirrel Valley Observatory, visit svo.space.