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Wednesday April 18, 2001

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Name of planetarium director floating around space

By Jeremy Duda

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Recently-discovered asteroid named after Flandrau director

It's not every day someone is immortalized in the name of an asteroid, but UA planetarium director Michael Magee has received such a tribute.

The asteroid, formerly known as 1990 OW2, was renamed Mikemagee to honor Magee's achievements at Flandrau Science Center. This summer will mark his 20th year of employment at the University of Arizona's planetarium.

"To know that I've reached that many people is probably my biggest achievement," he said.

Magee is one of the longest-term employees at Flandrau, having begun his work there as a student in 1981. During his tenure at the planetarium, Magee has been responsible for the planning and production of the many presentations given there, emphasizing both education and entertainment.

Unlike comets, which are rare, asteroids aren't customarily named after their discoverers, Magee said, since asteroids are often discovered in groups of at least 100.

"You don't want all those asteroids carrying the same name," said Magee.

The discoverer of an asteroid can, however, nominate someone to lend their name to their discovery. In the case of Magee, this was done by astronomer David Levy, a former co-worker at Flandrau, and his wife Wendee, an astrophotographer.

"We nominated Mike Magee to honor the work he's done at the planetarium," Levy said.

The asteroid was co-discovered in 1990 by Levy and astronomer Henry Holt at Palomar Observatory in San Diego.

The asteroid Mikemagee orbits about 300 million miles from the sun, roughly twice the distance of Earth.

"It can be best described as a small world. It's about 10 miles wide, and it has sunrises and sunsets," Levy said.

The nomination came as a surprise to Magee, who was presented with an award at what he thought was going to be just a lunch date with some old friends.

In order to name an asteroid, it must first be followed around its entire orbit, which can take several years depending on its distance from the sun. Once it has been charted for an entire revolution around the sun, it is given a designation number beginning with the year it was discovered.

Once a person is nominated for the name of the asteroid, it must be presented to the International Astronomical Union's Small Body Nomenclature Committee, which is responsible for giving names to such space objects once every two months.

"They looked at the name and said 'Is this an appropriate person?' and they named it," Levy said.

Levy earned his own claim to fame by co-discovering the asteroid Shoemaker-Levy 9, which crashed onto the surface of Jupiter in 1994.