Penticton astronomer’s name among the stars

Asteroid named after Ken Tapping from the White Lake Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory

Astronomer Ken Tapping looks over some of the electronics at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory this week. Tapping was recently honoured for his work by having an asteroid named after him.

It may only be a tiny speck of light in the night sky, but there’s a small celestial body up there that now means the world to local astronomer Ken Tapping.

Asteroid 293878 Tapping as it’s officially known is about two kilometres in diameter and hangs out between Mars and Jupiter a mere 100 million miles away. While the announcement happened a couple weeks ago, the popular speaker and columnist remains on Cloud 9.

“I’m still somewhat overwhelmed,” said Tapping, who works out of the White Lake Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. “It’s certainly marvelous because it’s sort of like an international statement that what you’re doing is worthwhile and that’s fantastic.

“Some days you come into work and you go home thinking, have I achieved anything useful at all? And this is a nice affirmation that, yeah, on the whole, you are useful.”

He actually learned of the naming a couple of weeks ago during an electronic meeting with his counterparts in Victoria.

There were the usual project updates and reports, but at one point the White Lake employees were told about the naming of three asteroids, including the one for a local employee.

“Everyone here started looking at everybody else and then the guy in Victoria said: ‘Asteroid — and gave this horrendous great number — Tapping,’” recalled the astronomer. “I was absolutely stunned and it’s the one time at a staff meeting I said a four letter word, the one that ends in t.”

While saying the naming is an honour, true to character, the astronomer is also quick to poke fun at the news and himself.

“Well to put it in perspective, when you look at the list of named asteroids, asteroid Tapping is directly after asteroid Tapioca, but I don’t mind tapioca,” he said. “And there is a Donald Duck, but as far as I know there is no Mickey Mouse.”

He’s also glad his moniker was not applied to a bad asteroid. The favoured ones are those not expected to come in contact with the Earth.

“Hopefully I’m just going to be skulking between Mars and Jupiter, but sometimes things collide in the asteroid belt and stuff gets scattered into the inner solar system,” he said with a feigned look of concern. “But you realize that there is nothing written on my asteroid, and if my asteroid does this (hits the Earth) I know nothing.”

Unfortunately (or fortunately), for now Asteroid Tapping is only visible using a very high-powered telescope.

Headquartered in Europe, it is the International Astronomical Union which ultimately grants the naming rights to a particular astrological object. In Tapping’s case, this comes as a recognition for the efforts he has made in solar radio monitoring of our sun which scientists are increasingly finding out has a tremendous impact on this planet.

“Here on Earth we are sensitive to the sun’s bad behaviour, because as we expand infrastructure and become a much more connected world and much more dependent on technology, our vulnerability goes up,” he said. “Canada has this sensitivity to what we call bad space weather much more than any other country.”

As an example, he pointed to the events in 1989 when a solar flare resulted in a substantial geomagnetic storm that knocked out power to Quebec and caused over a billion dollars damage. Even large pipelines can be impacted when currents are induced inside them, rapidly increasing corrosion to the weld points where they are joined.

“That’s why it’s so important that we keep a good stethoscope on the sun, which Canada has been doing since 1946,” said Tapping. “Studying the rest of the universe is important, but obviously studying this relationship between the sun and our planet is critical.”

But back to asteroids: while Tapping expects his namesake will last at least as long as the Earth, even with the growing advances in technology, he doesn’t expect to ever see it in person. “Besides, I think they would have to do Tapioca first,” he conceded.