It's official. The solar system now holds two minor planets named "Manhattan" and "Perth Amboy."
They are part of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, said Joe Montani of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, who discovered the objects on Jan.2 and Jan. 3, 1997.
Based on the asteroids' brightness and distance from Earth, astronomers believe the asteroid named for Manhattan is about 5 miles in diameter, and the asteroid named for Perth Amboy is about 3 miles across.
Montani, a native of Perth Amboy, N.J., said he named one of his recent asteroid discoveries for his hometown because it was there he learned amateur astronomy and began making homemade telescopes.
"Sputnik was launched when I was 5 years old," Montani said. "My dad took me outside one evening to see the satellite pass over. The local paper, the Perth Amboy Evening News, reported when the satellite would fly over. We were outside at the right time and were looking in the right direction. But no one had ever seen a satellite before, so we were not sure we saw Sputnik."
The Montanis lived along the glide path to Newark airport, and even today it is sometimes difficult to tell a satellite from an airplane, Montani noted.
"But that occasion impressed me indelibly. It led me into a lifetime of interest and work in the beautiful field of astronomy. I wanted to put the name of my hometown up in lights, and named minor planet 12465 Perth Amboy out of gratitude."
"And because in Perth Amboy we lived in the cultural and even visible glow of Manhattan, and in memory of my college years there at Columbia, and because it was the site of terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center towers in 2001, I named minor planet 12464 'Manhattan,'" Montani said. "Manhattan is still my favorite island in all the world.
Montani works on the UA Spacewatch project, a research effort dedicated to discovering and tracking potentially hazardous asteroids that might collide with Earth. The potentially dangerous Earth-orbit-crossing objects are much rarer than the more distant numerous 'main-belt' asteroids, Montani said
Montani has discovered four comets and hundreds of asteroids to date, observing between 1996 and 2001 with the 36-inch Spacewatch telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz., 45 miles southwest of the UA campus.
Montani has named 15 of his minor planet discoveries so far. These include asteroids named named for scientists, artists, musicians, among them American lyric poet Allen Ginsberg, American jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, and Navajo-Ute musician R. Carlos Nakai. But Manhattan and Perth Amboy are so far the only discoveries Montani has named for places.
Observatories and amateur astronomers worldwide observe newly discovered objects to get many exact measurements of their orbits, and then these new objects are given a "permanent designation," or catalog number, by a commission of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Montani said.
Once the asteroid has its IAU-designated number, its discoverer is allowed to propose a name for the minor planet. Rather strict guidelines are followed to ensure that minor planet names are appropriate. The discoverer also submits a three-or-four line citation about the name. A 13-member international IAU committee then, during the next full moon, holds a virtual "meeting" by e-mail and votes to accept or reject the proposed name.
Montani proposed to the IAU last Nov. 21 that two of his asteroid discoveries be named for Manhattan and Perth Amboy. The official names of asteroids always retain the permanent designation, or sequence number, and so the names are, formally: "(12464) Manhattan", and "(12465) Perth Amboy", with the numbers always in parenthesis.
Montani was born in Perth Amboy in 1952, to the late John and Rose Montani, of Groom Street. He attended Public School No. 8 (later renamed the Rose Galvin School) during grades K-6, and then the Samuel E. Shull School on Hall Avenue during grades 7-8. He graduated Perth Amboy High School in 1970, and was the president of the PAHS Astronomy Club for three years, as well as an advisor of the Perth Amboy YMCA Astronomy Club during 1967-1970. He was also a member of Amateur Astronomers, Inc., of Cranford, N.J., one of the largest and longest-established astronomy groups in the U.S.
Montani attended Columbia University in New York City, where he studied philosophy, astronomy, and physics. After graduation, he worked for the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York in research in radio-astronomy, mapping the Milky Way galaxy with small radio telescopes in New York City and at Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory, in Chile, South America. After ten years in research, Montani attended graduate school at SUNY-Stony Brook, where he earned his master's degree in physics in 1987 in a select program devoted to scientific instrumentation.
After graduate school, Montani moved to Tucson to work at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory on problems related to finding sites for a new generation of large optical telescopes. He joined the university's Lunar and Planetary Lab in 1990, flying frequently on the NASA Kuiper Airborne Observatory with a UA infrared spectrometer, making observations of solar system objects. Montani joined Spacewatch in 1994, where he is responsible for optics for the project, as well as sharing part of the telescopic observing. The project's complement of telescopes has now doubled, to two. A 72-inch Spacewatch telescope began operations on Kitt Peak in 2001. It is the largest telescope in the world which is dedicated to solar system studies.
Montani's colleagues in February 1999 named an asteroid after him, "(7656) Joemontani."
Montani has also discovered four new comets, two within six nights of each other in 1997, one in 1998, and the very first comet of the 2000's, "C/2000 A1 (Montani)". Comet discoverers do not name comets themselves, but the discoverer's own name is always given to the comet, instead, by the IAU.
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