4 mins read 19 Aug 2020

Asteroids named in honour of Indigenous Australians

Five asteroids discovered by astronomers Eleanor Helin & Schelte Bus in June 1979 have been named in honour of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, community and academics and their significant contribution to the field of astronomy.

Milky Way star map by Bill Yidumduma Harney, Senior Wardaman Edler. Image: Bill Yidumduma Harney, CC BY

The skies above us now include several new names of Indigenous Australians, with a set of five asteroids named after two Indigenous Elders, two Indigenous academics and a Torres Strait island community, in recognition for their ongoing contribution to Aboriginal astronomy. 

The asteroid names were announced last week by Dr. Duane Hamacher, Associate Professor of Cultural Astronomy in the School of Physics, University of Melbourne. He proposed the names to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) almost 2 years ago to name the asteroids in recognition and acknowledgement of the significant contributions to astronomy of the Meriam people, a Meriam Elder Uncle Sear Passi, Senior Wardaman Elder Uncle Bill Yidumduma Harney, Professor Martin Nakata and Professor Marcia Langton.

‘The IAU don’t actually notify you when the names are approved, they just go on a list, so last week I checked the list and there they were. They were actually approved on 3 June which is Mabo Day.’ Dr. Hamacher said.

‘I'm in the IAU working group for star names. We've officiated six Aboriginal star names, but none of those stars can be named after a person," said Dr. Hamacher. "Asteroids can be named after people and usually are."  

Meriam people on Mer Island performing a ceremonial dance. Credit: Dr Duane Hamacher

The Asteroid Namesakes

The Meriam people live in the eastern Torres Strait, united by a common language (Meriam Mir). The Meriam people hold a complex and rich astronomical knowledge that is taught within the community through story, dance and art. The asteroid now officially called ‘7546 Meriam’ is a 2km wide asteroid of the Flora family, located in the inner region of the asteroid belt.

When deciding who to put forward in naming the asteroids, Dr. Hamacher initially thought to name the asteroids after elders. ‘This was difficult because so many Elders contribute so much. With a lot of guidance from Elders and the community we decided to put forward the whole community and a senior Elder, Uncle Segar Passi,’ said Dr. Hamacher.

Meriam Elder and renowned artist Uncle Segar Passi, has shared his knowledge with Dr. Hamacher,  over many years. Mr Passi’s asteroid is called ‘7733 Segarpassi’ and is a 1.9 km wide asteroid in the main asteroid belt.

‘7630 Yidumduma’ is named for Uncle Bill Yidumduma Harney, a Senior Wardaman Elder who has shared his traditional star knowledge in his books Dark Sparklers and Four Circles. Dark Sparkers is the most detailed record of astronomical knowledge of an Australian Aboriginal group. Thiis asteroid is 6.4 km wide asteroid of the Koronis family and is located in the outer region of the asteroid belt.

‘7809 Marcialangton’ is a 4.3 km wide asteroid located in the main asteroid belt. Prof. Marcia Langton is a Yiman woman, Provost, and Foundation of Australian Indigenous Studies at The University of Melbourne who leads the incorporation of Aboriginal Astronomy into the Australian National Curriculum.

Professor Langton was awarded an Order of Australia this year for her contributions for improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders within Tertiary education and for her work as an anthropologist, community leader and advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

‘Part of the reason why Professor Langton was chosen was her work in incorporating Indigenous astronomy into the curriculum for primary and secondary education,’ Dr. Hamacher said. The initiative aims to integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait knowledge into curriculum resources available for both primary and secondary education.

7547 Martinnakata is a 3.3 km wide asteroid of the Koronis family, located in the outer region of the asteroid belt. Professor Martin Nakata, is a Torres Strait Islander and Professor and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) at James Cook University who leads research and curricula in Indigenous Astromony. Professor Nakata was also recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list with an Order of Australia for significant service to tertiary education, and to learning outcomes for Indigenous students.

View the Minor Planets Names List