Brasão da PUC-Rio

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A name for an Asteroid

Prof. Daniele Fulvio, Department of Physics, is honored by the International Astronomical Union naming the asteroid 11465

By Renata Ratton
Communication Assessor – Office of the Vice-president for Academic Affairs

Published on 04/27/2017

O professor Fulvio, no Laboratório de Astrofísica Experimental e Ciências Planetárias do Departamento de Física Professor Fulvio at the Laboratory for Experimental Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences, Department of Physics – Photo credit: personal archive

Observed for the first time in 1981, the asteroid 11465 now has a name: (11465) Fulvio.

The denomination is a tribute given by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to Professor Daniele Fulvio of the Department of Physics, a Sicilian who, at the age of 37, joins a select group of scientists awarded this honor for their scientific merits. Still more restricted considering the young age.

Each year, the IAU - the worldwide body responsible for naming all types of celestial bodies - assigns names to “celebrities”, prominent researchers, and other eligible categories to these bodies.

Originally, only observing astronomers, who discovered the asteroid, had the privilege of proposing the name, within ten years, by writing a brief citation explaining the reasons for naming it, in accordance with the IAU guidelines; with the advancement of technology, the discovery of asteroids has become a process done through automated telescopes. Consequently, a much larger number of bodies is detected each year, and the way of naming asteroids has changed a bit. All proposed names are judged by the IAU's Small Bodies Nomenclature Working Group (CSBN), composed of 15 professional astronomers from around the world.

The "baptism" of the asteroid 11465 surprised the researcher of PUC-Rio whose name was anonymously indicated by fellow astronomers, approved by the CSBN commission, and kept confidential until the announcement during the Asteroids, Comets and Meteors International Conference that, in the 2017 edition, was held in Montevideo, Uruguay. Fulvio notes that, curiously, it was Giuseppe Piazzi, astronomer at the Palermo National Observatory (Sicily), the first to discover and name an asteroid in 1801, the asteroid Ceres (now classified as a "dwarf planet").

So far, of about 750,000 asteroids discovered, only about 21,000 have a name, since the assignment has (literally) a long trajectory.

— An asteroid discovered today will not have a name tomorrow, it is only a data with a provisional designation. It may take decades, as was the case of (11465) Fulvio, discovered in 1981 (provisional designation: 1981 EP30), to stop being a provisional data and receive a permanent number. First, its orbit must be sufficiently determined so that the position can be reliably predicted in the future. Typically this means that the asteroid has been observed in four or more oppositions, which may come from various telescopes. Once its orbit is determined, the asteroid is numbered permanently, and only then the names suggested and approved by the IAU will be attributed to these celestial bodies, clarifies the Professor.

It shall be noted that the "baptism" of an asteroid is a tribute to the researcher, not a direct association between that specific asteroid and the research of the name giver. “All I know about mine is that it's in the asteroid belt (the region of the Solar System between about the orbits of Mars and Jupiter), has a diameter of 12.5 km, and low reflectivity”, says Fulvio.

Daniele Fulvio: pesquisas reconhecidas pela IAUDaniele Fulvio was honored by the IAU – Photo credit: Renata Ratton

Contributions to Science - From the point of view of astronomers, there are three main types: observers - who, as the name implies, work with observations; theorists, who work with physical and mathematical models to interpret observations; and the experimental ones, in which Professor Fulvio fits in, developing his research at the Van de Graaff Laboratory.

Fulvio's experiments simulate what happens in space, more specifically the physico-chemical processes that occur on the surface of asteroids: "I am an experimental astrophysicist who tries to simulate the effects of the solar wind on the surface of asteroids, which is fundamental for interpreting the data coming from space missions and telescopes."

Fulvio works with a big problem, which appeared about 20-25 years ago. When comparing the data of some asteroids obtained by telescopes with meteorite data - fragments of asteroids that theoretically should have the same composition - it was noticed that there were spectral differences (simply put, in their light reflection properties).

— Sometimes, theorists can determine precisely which body the meteorite are originated from, but not how and why its spectrum is different. It happens that when a meteorite enters the atmosphere and its exterior burns, the meteorite "forgets" what happened in that external part while being in space. The asteroid is 4.5 billion years old and receives a flux of particles from the sun, called solar wind, also since 4.5 billion years. Therefore, if the surface of the asteroid is processed for 4.5 billion years, a fragment recovered on Earth should be compared to the interior of the asteroid, not to its surface. As only the surface is observable, I try, in the laboratory, to simulate the effects of the solar wind on meteorites (the original surface) using a particle accelerator. The total effect of the solar wind is called space weathering. With the continuity of the radiation, it is possible to verify that the spectra of the meteorites become equal to those of the asteroids’ surface - explains the Professor, who already worked with several classes of meteorites and asteroids.

Daniele Fulvio is the first in his area, Experimental Astrophysics, in Brazil, honored by the International Astronomical Union giving name to an asteroid. Fulvio’s other lines of research are Astrochemistry and Astrobiology, which study the evolution of molecules of astrophysical interest and the origin of life from the molecular point of view. He has regular scientific production, with publications in Qualis A1 and A2 journals, the most prestigious ones by Capes.

— For me, the choice is a great honor, and I believe that for the University and the Department of Physics it is important to have a researcher with this distinction, he gladly says.

Jokes aside, it can be considered an astronomical fact.

In the following link, more info about asteroid (11465) Fulvio:

About the IAU and os brasileiros agraciados during the Conference Asteroids, Comets and Meteors, Montevideo:
The IAU was founded in 1919, with the mission of promoting and safeguarding the science of Astronomy, in all aspects, through international cooperation.

In this link:, it is possible to find the eight Brazilians awarded, besides Fulvio (who is Italian, but lives and works in Brazil) and the locality of Pernambuco that gave name to one of the asteroids of the list. All those cited can be found in the numbers: 10018/10468/10677/10696/10697/10741/10999/11260/11265 and 11465 (Fulvio).