Folio News Story
November 18, 2005

U of A rewarded with its own asteroid

Amateur astronomer names discovery after his alma mater

by Beverly Betkowski
Folio Staff
An asteroid, much like this one, now bears the name 'Uofalberta' after its finder's favourite university.
An asteroid, much like this one, now bears the name
'Uofalberta' after its finder's favourite university.

The University of Alberta really is out of this world, thanks to a grateful alumnus.

Andrew Lowe, an avid amateur astronomer who has studied asteroids in the night sky for years, has named one of his latest finds for the U of A. 'Uofalberta' was discovered Aug. 17, 2002 by Lowe, who graduated in 1982 with a bachelor of science in geophysics.

Now a Calgary resident working for EnCana Corporation as an exploration geophysicist, Lowe wanted to find a fitting way to pay back the U of A for giving him a good career start more than two decades ago.

"I have lots of fond memories of the U of A and my job here is directly as a result of the training I got. The environment at the U of A is so pro-science. As a result of getting that training I have had a successful career."

Lowe has studied the sky since he was eight, and has always been astounded by the variety of bodies in the sky. "There are so many different things you can be interested in. I like asteroids (which are fragments of bigger planets that have collided) because they combine my interest in computers, math and calculations."

Lowe, who tracks the space rocks with the aid of a computer linked to telescopes in California and New Mexico, has been credited with discovering 234 asteroids. Many of them bear the names of his friends and family members. Calgary, Edmonton and the occasion of the province's centenary have also received their own designated asteroids, as does Dr. Douglas Hube, who taught Lowe at the U of A.

The asteroid which became Uofalberta was first photographed by professional surveyors in 2002 in California and then promptly forgotten, as the search was on instead for so-called Earth approachers - asteroids on possible collision courses with Earth. The photo of Uofalberta was dumped in an archive, which was then posted online for amateurs like Lowe to view. He found it, and after tracking it over a lengthy period of time, was able to confirm that the asteroid's orbit was good enough that it would never get lost.

The asteroid was then approved by the Minor Plant Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. - a clearinghouse for such discoveries. The asteroid was assigned a number and its provisional designation of 2002 QV53 - and that inspired Lowe when he received clearance to name his discovery.

"The initials of the U of A motto Quaecumque Vera (whatsoever things are true) appear in the provisional designation."

The U of A asteroid is about five kilometres in diameter and lies between Mars and Jupiter, about 330 million kilometres from Earth. Asteroids vary in size from 1,000 kilometres in diameter to pebble-sized. Uofalberta "is pretty tiny but it's still a good-sized mountain if you put it on the scale of the Earth," Lowe noted.

Asteroids were unkindly dubbed as 'vermin of the sky' by professional astronomers of many years ago, because they left annoying streaks on exposed photographs of the night sky. Lowe bears no such ill feeling, but one of affection.

"Even after discovering 234 asteroids, there is always a thrill when you find one no one else has found." He is proud of the fact that he's even got one named for him by the International Astronomical Union. "Long after I'm gone there will be that little rock up there with my name on it, forever in the database."