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University of Alberta

Bear Country

"Certainly I don't get as much sleep as I should," says Andrew Lowe about his asteroid-hunting hobby that recently saw him name a find after his alma mater.

Heavens Above!

There are lots of ways of acknowledging your alma mater -- donating to a scholarship, attending Reunion weekend, cheering on the football team while wearing green and gold. But one U of A grad has taken his appreciation to new heights. Asteroid-hunter Andrew Lowe, '82 BSc, has named a celestial discovery Uofalberta in honour of his alma mater.

"I have lots of fond memories of the U of A," says Lowe. "As a result of my training there I have had a successful career." That career involves a day job searching the Earth for oil and gas reserves as an exploration geophysicist for EnCana. At night he searches the sky for asteroids.

Lowe's father sparked that interest in the night sky back in May 1967 by pointing out a partial solar eclipse over Edmonton. When the then-eight-year-old Andrew saw that wonder, he was hooked on astronomy for life. So much so that as a teenager he spent money from his first job to buy a big telescope, attached a camera to it, and began taking pictures of asteroids.

The technology has changed significantly since then. Now that celestial photographs taken in California and New Mexico have been digitized and put on the Internet, Lowe can search the sky with his computer. For a few hours each night, long after his family has gone to bed, Lowe is awake and alert, looking for asteroids. "Certainly I don't get as much sleep as I should," he says.

"Asteroids are so small that they look like faint stars, but because they're relatively close to us, they appear to move quite quickly," says Lowe. "You discover them by taking pictures of the sky throughout the night and then looking for anything moving."

When he sees the motion that distinguishes an asteroid, Lowe tracks its movement long enough to determine a recognizable orbit. He then sends his data to the Minor Planet Center, part of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If his discovery of a previously unknown asteroid is confirmed, he's given the opportunity to name it. A committee of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an association of professional astronomers, must also approve the name.

The process can take up to a few years, depending on how long it takes to follow and confirm an asteroid's orbit. He first found the now-named Uofalberta asteroid in 2002. Over the years he's found almost 250 asteroids and, in recognition of advances in the way he tracks asteroids, the IAU has even named an asteroid after him.

"I discovered my first asteroid in June 2000, although it wasn't confirmed for a few years, so it wasn't the first one I numbered and named," he says. The first asteroid he numbered and named he found in September 2002 and named the following March. "I named it for my wife, Blythe."

Since then Lowe has named asteroids for his children, his in-laws, and friends including Doug Hube, professor emeritus of physics at the U of A. When he sent in the information about the asteroid now called Uofalberta, it was given the provisional designation 2002 QV53.

The name "was a complete fluke," Lowe says. "But I had a vague recollection that the QV sounded a bit familiar, so I did a bit of poking around and found out that the letters were the initials of the University motto, Quaecumque Vera [whatsoever things are true]." Inspired by this sign from above, Lowe made the decision to name the asteroid after his alma mater.

His U of A-designated asteroid is 5 km in diameter and takes about 5.7 years to go around the sun. "It's a very typical asteroid," says Lowe, "moving in the mid- to-outer part of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter." And although not huge, it's still, he says, "mountain-sized on the scale of the Earth."

-- Shelagh Kubish, '85 BA

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