Totoro in Space

Science Technology

Totoro and Other Asteroids

When William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, he decided to call it “Georgium Sidus” (George’s Star) after the reigning British monarch King George III. But other astronomers, especially those outside Britain, were not so keen, and the classical pedigree of “Uranus”—the mythological father of Saturn—helped it become today’s standard name.

As telescopes have improved and the number of people scanning the heavens has climbed, we have seen less emphasis on classical credentials in naming the heavens. Over 15,000 minor planets, mostly asteroids, have been given appellations taken from a far wider range of subjects. Japan’s astronomers have played a significant role in recent discoveries, resulting in numerous Japanese places and people lending their names to celestial objects. Alongside emperors and famous sites, there are some more distinctly quirky choices.

The asteroid 10160 Totoro was discovered by Kobayashi Takao in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter on December 31, 1994. It takes its name from the friendly forest creature in Miyazaki Hayao’s anime film Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro). Kobayashi, a prolific spotter, had previously paid homage to the Totoro director by calling an earlier find 8883 Miyazakihayao. Numbers are assigned to asteroids when their orbits have been confirmed, which roughly corresponds with the order of their discovery.

One tasty-sounding asteroid is 6562 Takoyaki, named after the octopus-in-batter snack. In this case, the final decision was based on which of five candidates got the loudest applause from kids at a space-themed event. A long-running film series is remembered in 18996 Torasan. And spanning both food and pop culture, 46737 Anpanman got its name from the popular children’s character whose head is made of bread filled with sweet bean paste.

Tokio and Nipponia

I should point out that Japanese astronomers aren’t the only ones providing unusual names—take 2309 Mr. Spock or 9007 James Bond, for instance—but it’s partly because they have made so many discoveries that stretching for less obvious choices seems justified. Japan didn’t always have such impressive credentials in the field. Despite the efforts of some enthusiasts, the country’s stargazers didn’t really approach world standards until the late nineteenth century.

On March 6, 1900, Hirayama Shin became the first Japanese astronomer to spot a new asteroid, spying not one but two in the same night. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to confirm the orbits, thus missing out on official recognition as discoverer. However, the astronomers who later received official credit kindly ceded naming rights, and Hirayama took the opportunity to give the first Japan-themed designations, 498 Tokio and 727 Nipponia (from the spellings, apparently pseudo-classicism was still in vogue).

Astronomy gradually increased in popularity, and the perennial favorite children’s story “Ginga tetsudō no yoru” (“Night on the Galactic Railroad”), published in 1934, has surely inspired many a budding watcher of the skies. This fantasy with philosophical overtones describes a journey on a railroad through the stars, but author Miyazawa Kenji’s keen interest in astronomy is clear from the many references to specific features of the night sky. The writer got his own asteroid, 5008 Miyazawakenji, in 1991.

Collecting Space Dust

Not content with just looking at asteroids, in 2003 Japan launched a mission to bring back samples from 25143 Itokawa. Appropriately enough, this particular space rock is named after Japanese rocket scientist Itokawa Hideo, though it was actually discovered by a US research project. The Hayabusa spacecraft took two years to reach its target, where the plan was to fire small projectiles to shake up dust from the surface, capture it, and bring it back home.

When the sampling mechanism malfunctioned and the projectiles didn’t fire, researchers were left hanging on for the years it would take for Hayabusa to return, hoping that the impact of landing had been enough to throw some dust up into the sample container. Continuing technical problems meant that they didn’t get to check until 2010, seven years after the original launch. With what must have been joy and relief, they found the hoped-for particles onboard the probe, the first ever successfully collected.

Even microscopic particles can reveal information about the nature of the universe. When meteors enter the Earth’s atmosphere, much useful information is burned away with their surface layers, making it important to collect samples directly. Japan’s space agency JAXA is planning a follow-up mission, Hayabusa 2, to grab more dust. The launch date is set for December 2014, but the target asteroid has not yet been named and is known only by the provisional designation (162173) 1999 JU3. Here’s hoping it gets a better name soon.

Some Other Japan-Themed Asteroid Names

  • 2853 Ryoma: from Sakamoto Ryōma (1836–67), a key figure in the moves to overthrow the Tokugawa government in the 1860s
  • 3998 Tezuka: from Tezuka Osamu (1928–89), “the god of manga” 
  • 6562 Takoyaki: from the snack food, fried batter with diced octopus inside
  • 6866 Kukai: from Kūkai (posthumously Kōbō Daishi; 774–835), founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism 
  • 6980 Kyusakamoto: from Sakamoto Kyū (1941–85), the Japanese singer most famous for the song “Ue o Muite Arukō,” known internationally as “Sukiyaki” 
  • 7777 Consadole: from soccer team Consadole Sapporo 
  • 9081 Hideakianno: from Anno Hideaki (1960–), the director of the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series and films 
  • 10160 Totoro: from the title character in anime film My Neighbor Totoro 
  • 10223 Zashikiwarashi: from the mischievous, child-like spirit 
  • 12796 Kamenrider: from superhero television series Kamen Rider 
  • 18996 Torasan: from the hero of the long-running film series Otoko wa tsurai yo (It’s Tough Being a Man) 
  • 26887 Tokyogiants: from the baseball team more commonly known as the Yomiuri Giants 
  • 46737 Anpanman: from the children’s character whose head is made of bread filled with bean paste

(Banner photo: Surface of the asteroid 4 Vesta. Photo by NASA/AP Photo/Aflo.)

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