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How I Got My Asteroid

Martin Elvis—

Changing your line of work late in your career is a refreshing thing to do. I worked for decades helping to decipher the mysteries of how giant black holes—the darkest things in the Universe—can be the engines of the brightest things in the Universe (quasars), making them visible back to nearly the time of the Big Bang. But after a while you are only making modest changes to what you already did. I took up studying asteroids, in particular mining them, to escape this trap.

It wasn’t a total change of subject. Asteroids are the nearest objects that astronomers count as part of their field and they can be studied with the tools of astronomy. That meant what I knew still had some value. But instead of getting personal invitations to talk at conferences, I was relegated to putting up a poster at the back of the room. This was fun, as I had everything to learn and no reputation to consider. I was hoping I could get a little recognition and not make a fool of myself too badly.

One of those conferences is held only every three years. It is the world’s biggest meeting of scientists who work on asteroids, comets, and meteorites all over the world. Naturally the event takes place all over the world too. The 2014 Asteroids, Comets, and Meteorites Conference was held in Helsinki. It was the first one I had been to, so I was amazed and honored when the announcement was given at the end of the banquet that an asteroid had been named for me—9283 Martinelvis. 

I had no idea this was coming. If I had, maybe I’d have had less wine! Of course, many others got their named asteroids that night, mostly the newly minted PhDs in the field. Getting your own asteroid is like graduating college. If asteroid scientists were the Mafia, it would be like becoming a “made man” (but without the homicide; they take care not to name any potentially hazardous asteroids after living people!). It was great to become an acknowledged, albeit junior, member of the field. 

The other surprise for me was to see that this worldwide gathering had only about 400 participants. To put that in perspective, the adjacent fields of astronomy on the one side and geology on the other respectively pull in ten and fifty times as many attendees for their big meetings. Asteroid science is a pretty small pursuit, at least for now.

Since then, I’ve carved out something of a niche for myself by working on how the astronomy of asteroids can be used to prospect for valuable asteroids. It was soon clear that the really “X marks the spot” treasure-worthy asteroids are few and far between. It would take much more astronomy to find a good inventory for the would-be miners.

As I learned more, I experienced the paradox my undergraduate mentor, Dr. C.R. Burch (I never knew his given name! It was a more formal time), called “the broadening effect of specialization.” As I learned more about finding ore-rich asteroids, I realized I needed to know more about adjacent questions, taking me into “granular physics” (the physics of sand piles) and then into orbital mechanics. Even stranger for my hard physics background, it took me into questions of law and policy, economics and entrepreneurship. If we are ever to mine the asteroids successfully all these questions must be answered. A few years of diving deeper and wider into this all made me realize that I was in a unique position to explain the whole nascent industry, from astronomy to policy, to a wider audience. So I wrote a book about it.

Martin Elvis is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. Previously he was a postdoctoral fellow with the UK Science Research Council. He has researched X-ray astronomy, black holes, and quasars—and now asteroids. In 2007, he won the Pirelli INTERNETional Award for multimedia science communication. Asteroid 9283 Martinelvis is named after him. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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