Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Asteroids of Science Fiction

Jack McDevitt, one of my favorite science fiction writers, was recently honored by having an asteroid named for him.
328305 JackMcDevitt is a main-belt asteroid (located between Mars and Jupiter) that on average lies 2.55 astronomical units (237 million miles) from the Sun and has an orbital period of 4.08 years.

Note the number 328305. Asteroids are named by their order of discovery. The first one found was 1 Ceres (back in 1801) and now we are up to more than 328,305 of them that have been discovered. That's a lot of asteroids!

The naming of this asteroid for Jack McDevitt got me to wondering what other science fiction authors have asteroids named for them. I decided to find out which authors from my science collection have asteroids. So this isn't a comprehensive list, but rather one that reflects my reading preferences:

230765 Alfbester
5020 Asimov
9766 Bradbury
4923 Clarke
5748 DaveBrin
25924 DouglasAdams
10177 Ellison
115561 FrankHerbert
196772 FritzLeiber
6371 Heinlein
328305 JackMcDevitt
12284 Pohl
127005 Pratchett
2675 Tolkien
5231 Verne

Yes, I included a few fantasy writers (Terry Pratchett and J.R.R. Tolkien) too. The list is much smaller than I thought it would be and I was surprised to find that other giants of the field, such as Gregory Benford, Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven or H.G. Wells*, do not have asteroids named for them. I left 21811 Burroughs off of the list because I don't think that I've ever actually read anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

There are of course other names from science fiction that could have been added such as 4659 Roddenberry and 9777 Enterprise, but I decided for now to focus on science fiction writers (Maybe asteroids of Star Trek will be a future post here).
Here are the orbits of the asteroids that are on my list as seen from directly above the solar system. The orbital planes of the major planets are all very nearly aligned, but that's not true for the asteroids. The parts of their orbits that lie below the plane of Earth's orbit (known the ecliptic) are shown in dark blue while the lighter color shows where in their orbits they are above this plane.

A view from the side shows this more clearly:
In this case I didn't include all the asteroids on the list. Instead, it only shows the ones with orbits that have a significant tilt with respect to Earth's orbit.

There are a few astronomers who have written science fiction that have asteroids named for them, but the main reason for their having been honored with an asteroid was due to their work in astronomy rather than for their work in literature. Those include:

2709 Sagan which was named for the late, great astronomer Carl Sagan author of the wonderful science fiction novel Contact; 3341 Hartmann for planetary scientist and artist William K. Hartmann who wrote the under appreciated Mars Underground; and 8077 Hoyle for astronomer Fred Hoyle who wrote or co-wrote more than a dozen (mostly not-so-great) science fiction novels.

I assembled these images from the plots available at the JPL Small-Body Database Browser and I used various sources (including the books on my bookshelves and the Minor Planet Center's Minor Planet Names: Alphabetical List ) to compile the list of science fiction authors who have had asteroids named for them.

*Note: 17458 Dick is named for an astronomer, 12513 Niven was named for a mathematician and 1721 Wells was named for a university administrator.


  1. Astronomer/SF author Robert S. Richardson *discovered* at least one minor planet, which he named (IIRC) "Marjorae" as a portmanteau of the names of his wife and daugher.

  2. I love the company I'm keeping these days.