Astronomer Names Minor Planet After Vancouver First Nation: the Tsawout Asteroid


Harvey Underwood is the proud Tsawout First Nation Chief who now gets to look up at the sky, knowing that the name of their community has a place among the stars.

Somewhere in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, astronomer David Balam discovered an asteroid (also called minor planet) and named it after the community.

The name has a deep meaning, says Underwood:

“Our name means, ‘houses on the hill.’ Now our planet is ‘houses in the universe,’ I guess.”

After meeting with the International Astronomical Union in Victoria, David Balam presented the First Nation with a plaque, to officially mark the naming of the asteroid.

Astronomer David Balam discovered a two-kilometer-wide asteroid in 2007. Naming a space object is a long process. It can take from 5 to 20 years, also requiring the mapping of its orbit. Then, the name has to be approved by the union and the international organization – Minor Planet Centre, which collects and publishes observational data for all minor planets discovered.

When the solar system formed, it also left chunks of rock in the space, which are the asteroids. Tsawout is now one asteroid among millions, and it orbits in the asteroid belt.

Balam spends his time looking up the sky through a telescope at the observatory on Little Saanich Mountain. There, he documents small planets and tries to answer the biggest scientific question, he says:

“I’m trying to answer a scientific question. This isn’t, how old is the universe and where do we come from. It’s a bit more fundamental. It is: Is that thing going to hit the Earth?”

“It’s mixed in there with all the stars.” – Harvey Underwood

Balam named until now 48 minor planets, and Tsawout is the 49th. The previous ones have the names of astronomers or institutions in Canada, important people in his life and even the name of the University of Victoria:

“This is about the only feasible way I can see in the near future that we’re going to populate the solar system with Canadians, eh?”

As for the Tsawout name, it’s a personal connection. His family homestead was close to the island, and his ancestors are the Tsawout and Haida First Nations. He has great respect for the First Nation, as they have preserved their tradition.


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