No known life forms exist on Anacostia, Virginia or Washingtonia.
These familiar-sounding places are asteroids discovered between 60 and 130 years ago and orbiting in our galaxy far, far away. These minor planets are three of about3,500 asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, roughly 400 million miles from Earth.
Naval Observatory astronomer George H. Peters was given credit for discovering Asteroid No. 886 on Nov. 16, 1917. After the minor planet's orbit was studied, Peters named his discovery Washingtonia, "in honor of George Washington."
Peters' discovery of Washingtonia was disputed when astronomer Margaret Harwood, director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket, Mass., showed that she had found it four days earlier. Peters, however, received the benefit of the doubt and the chance to name the minor planet.
His last discovery, almost four years later, was Minor Planet No. 980, and he called it Anacostia for "an urban district in Washington, also a river in the Columbia District."
Peters discovered his first minor planet in 1904, according to the International Astronomical Union, the official repository of planet names. He called it Meipi, for a mountain in Sumatra.
"The discoverer Peters seems to have had something for geographical names," said Brian G. Marsden of the International Astronomical Union. Marsden is also the director of the Smithsonian Institution's Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts.
The discoverer is entitled to name the minor planet, according to Marsden, but the process is formal. Once the minor planet is discovered, it is given a temporary name. Then, after confirmation that it is indeed a new finding, the discoverer submits a name to the nomenclature committee of the International Astronomical Union. The committee meets to endorse the name, then the astronomical group releases the latest names on the date of the full moon each month.
During his 32 years at the Naval Observatory, Peters, who died in 1947, photographed sunspots, solar eclipses and minor planets. Peters shot sunspots from here and Europe, and on one of his expeditions in 1925 he got photos from aboard the airship Los Angeles.
Unlike the earthbound Virginia, which was the 10th state admitted to the union, the astronomical Virginia was only the 50th planet found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But the planet Virginia, found by astronmer James Ferguson in 1857 from the Naval Observatory, was the first planet named for an area geographic location and the second to be discovered from Washington, according to the International Astronomical Union.
Naval Observatory astronomer Dennis McCarthy explained that minor planets are discovered mostly by accident and that astronomers may have difficulty seeing the objects. Although some asteroids may be more than 150 miles in diameter, McCarthy said, "They may be as small as a house or a small building." Astronomers see the minor planets only when the sun's light reflects from their surfaces.
Stars emit various forms of energy, McCarthy said, while minor planets or asteroids do not emit energy. The mass of minor planets is low, and they are incapable of having an atmosphere or sustaining life.
Marsden explained that minor planets were once named from mythology. The proliferation of minor planet discoveries has prompted the discoverers to search elsewhere for names. Seven recently discovered asteroids were named in March for the astronauts who died in the crash of the space shuttle Challenger. It was also suggested that the newly discovered moons orbiting Uranus be named for the those astronauts, but it has yet to be done.
Harwood's work to discover a minor planet did not go unnoticed. In their 1973 book, "Tables of Minor Planets," Frederick Pilcher and Jean Meeus credited Harwood for Washingtonia's discovery.
Marsden said that he spoke with Harwood several years ago and found her bitter over that incident. He said that Harwood believed that she deserved credit.
According to Marsden, Harwood said: "If I had been given credit, I would have called it Nantucket."