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May 14, 2007

Minor Planet Named for Texas State Park

NEEDVILLE, Texas — Brazos Bend has always been a Texas state park offering plenty to see and do. Now, it’s also a minor planet orbiting within our solar system.

“Brazos Bend” is the official name recently accepted by the International Astronomical Union to designate a minor planet discovered through telescopes located inside Brazos Bend State Park at The George Observatory, a satellite facility of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Joseph Dellinger, Max Eastman and Bill Dillon are a team of volunteer researchers at the George Observatory who spent four years observing the minor-planet Brazos Bend before it was eligible to receive its name.

“There’s typically a delay between when you discover a minor planet and when you get to name it,” said Dellinger.

The asteroid, originally designated as HC67, was first discovered in April 2001. According to Dellinger, it’s not an easy task to find an asteroid that hasn’t already been mapped. To acquire the naming rights for a minor planet, a great deal of time and observation is required.

“You don’t get credit for just spotting an asteroid one night,” said Dellinger. “You usually have to get another observation recorded within the next couple of days, and this is usually when most asteroids are lost.”

Fortunately HC67 was not lost, and Dellinger and his team tracked the asteroid further.

“You have to keep following it for a month or two if you want to be able to spot it again the next year. Then, you have to cover it from year to year until you have the orbit so well nailed down that one observation in a century will be enough. This usually takes about four years of observation,” he said.

At the point that a minor planet’s orbit is determined well enough, the asteroid is given a permanent number. HC67 was designated 63387, meaning it is the 63,387th asteroid to receive a permanent number since the first time an asteroid was numbered in 1801.

After years of tracking asteroid number 63387, Dellinger and his team offered the honor of naming this piece of the sky to Brazos Bend State Park, since the park has been home to the observatory for many years.

“I thought it would be a nice gesture to the park,” said Dellinger. “It’s one of our better discoveries.”

Brazos Bend State Park Superintendent Steve Killian thought giving the minor planet the namesake of Brazos Bend was only fitting.

“The [park] staff and I thought it was a great way to showcase our great park, home of the George Observatory,” said Killian. “We really have a hand-in-glove relationship with the observatory. We’re partners, and it is really a wonderful opportunity to have the observatory inside the park. It allows our neighbors from the Houston metropolitan area to really see a night sky. The stars are big and bright in Texas, and here especially, you can see that.”

Brazos Bend, however, is not so easy to spot. The minor planet’s intensity of brightness is measured at a magnitude of 15. Stars of the big dipper are a magnitude 3. The greater the magnitude number, the dimmer the star appears. The dimmest star visible to the naked eye is a magnitude 6.

“The brightest [asteroids] were all taken before we even got started,” said Dellinger. “We’re always discovering things at the outer limits of our capabilities. If it was easy to find, someone already discovered it.”

Still, the night sky over Brazos Bend’s 5,000 acres offers an unobstructed view of the stars unlike any other in the Houston area.

Twenty-one years ago, when Brazos Bend was still a fairly new state park, Halley’s Comet returned to the night sky. Droves of Texans flocked to Brazos Bend to get a better look.

“Thousands of people visited the park in 1986, and the idea of an observatory inside Brazos Bend became quite popular,” said Barbara Wilson, director of the George Observatory. “In 1989, we opened the observatory.”

Today, the George Observatory offers a number of educational opportunities. On Saturday evenings, it is open to the public for a small fee. An available 36-inch Gueymard Research Telescope is one of the largest telescopes in the nation open to public use.

In addition to stargazing at the observatory, Brazos Bend State Park has plenty of other outdoor opportunities.

“The park has ecological habitats of tall grass coastal prairies, live oak slope forests, bottomland hardwood forests, ponds, lakes, creeks and the Brazos River. This diversity is what makes Brazos Bend a special place to view abundant wildlife,” said Killian. “Our best known viewable resident is the American Alligator. We have more than three hundred that are greater than six feet in length.”

In addition to wildlife viewing, the park has fishing, picnicking and camping opportunities and more than 34 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails.

“It’s a great place to get out and experience a natural part of Texas.” Killian said.

Now, with a minor planet orbiting above, “out-of-this-world” is not only a figurative description for Brazos Bend, but a literal one as well.

Brazos Bend State Park is located approximately an hour’s drive southwest of Houston. The park is open all week, year-round, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

More information on Brazos Bend State Park can be found on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Web site, and additional information on The George Observatory can be found through the Houston Museum of Natural Science Web site.

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SB 2007-05-14

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