University of Colorado Boulder scientist and researcher Paul Sánchez will forever be linked to a pair of asteroids spanning nearly three miles in diameter.
The International Astronomical Union recently announced that it would honor Sánchez by renaming asteroid 2000 VH57 in his honor.
Now named Paulsánchez, the binary system is a pair of asteroids orbiting each other in the asteroid belt.
Sánchez, a senior research associate at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research within the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at CU Boulder, did not have a background in astrodynamics before coming to the university 10 years ago. But he combined his expertise in granular dynamics and quantum chemistry to dive into asteroid science.
Sánchez’s research includes rubble pile asteroids, or asteroids that are not one large piece of rock, but many pieces held together.
Sánchez’s colleague, Professor Dan Scheeres, was one of the people who nominated him for the honor.
“When he first came to work in the lab 10 years ago, we took his expertise and applied it to asteroids because no one had really done that in a rigorous way before,” Scheeres said.
Sánchez’s work has shown people that problems with granular dynamics on Earth — like the bridge collapse on U.S. 36 caused by shifting soil — have relevance in space, Scheeres said.
Sánchez said his research shows that pebbles and dust act like a weak cement by allowing rubble asteroids to stick together and rotate faster than they should be able to.
Sánchez said he wants people to be more curious and less afraid of asteroids.
“I think many times people watch movies about how asteroids are going to destroy the planet, and of course there is that possibility, but asteroids for me are a continued source of amazement,” Sánchez said. “We shouldn’t be scared of them, we should try to understand how they change, how they are and if there is something we can do with them.”
With an abundance of scientists, researchers and experts in Boulder, Sánchez said he would like to see more people engage in learning about the natural wonders around them.
“We’re just people like you, we like to talk about the things we do and know,” Sánchez said. “People should feel free to inquire and ask questions. I find it really invigorating.”
Sánchez is the third person from CU Boulder to have an asteroid named after them. Previous honorees include Scheeres and Assistant Professor Jay McMahon.
While it’s not necessarily easy to become the namesake of an asteroid, it is relatively common among scientists who specialize in the field, Scheeres said.
There’s also a low probability of an asteroid named after someone causing a humanity-ending apocalypse, Scheeres said.
“We do discover asteroids that have some probability of hitting the earth in the future, but I’ve never seen any asteroid in that class named after a person and that’s probably for a reason,” he said.