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Hilo and Kona now asteroids in the night sky

July 30, 2014 - 12:05am

Hilo and Kona are not just towns on Hawaii Island. They’re also two asteroids in the night sky, thanks to recent action by amateur astronomers at observatories in Germany and the Canary Islands.

Tobias Hausler, an undergraduate astronomer at Starkenburg Observatory in Heppenheim, discovered asteroid 342431, later dubbed “Hilo,” on Oct. 25, 2008, along with Matthias Busch, originator of the volunteer Teide Observatory Tenerife Asteroid Survey.

Busch, with Rainer Kresken at Teide Observatory, Tenerife, Canary Islands, discovered asteroid 284891, named “Kona,” on Sept. 13, 2009, while searching for NEOs, or Near Earth Objects, that could pose a threat to our home planet.

The asteroids were named Jan. 20, according to a blog posting by Hausler.

“Both asteroids are located in the ‘Asteroid Main Belt’ between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter. At the moment you can find ‘Hilo’ in the northern end of the constellation Hydra. ‘Kona’ can be found in Aquila,” Hausler said in his January blog post.

Hausler told Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi about the discoveries in a letter received by Kenoi’s office April 21. He enclosed certificates as “a symbolic handover” of the two minor planets.

“Hilo was my very first asteroid discovery together with my friend Matthias Busch,” Hausler said in the letter. “After I visited Hawaii to watch the transit of Venus in 2012, I decided to name my first asteroid after the city I spent most of the time. … I hope you like to know that an astronomically so important and beautiful piece of earth is now a bit more represented, honored and perpetuated in the night sky.”

The mayor’s office has not yet responded to Hausler’s letter, a spokesman said Monday.

Astronomers who discover asteroids are able to name them after a lengthy process that includes multiple observations to establish and predict their orbits, said Bob Goodrich, observing support manager for W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, which was not involved in the discovery.

Discoverers apply to the International Astronomical Union to assign names to their numbered asteroids. There are rules, such as the asteroid cannot be named for the discoverer.

Goodrich called asteroid discoveries “fairly common,” although he added that unnamed ones are getting harder to find. He said almost 300,000 asteroids have been named to date.

“They used to try to name them after Greek mythology figures,” Goodrich said. “But there’s not that many of those, so they’ve gone to other names.”

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