Native Americans celebrate naming asteroid ‘Ayló’chaxnim or ‘Venus Girl’ at Caltech’s Mount Palomar Observatory – Pasadena Now

Members of the Pauma group walk to the Hale 200-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory. [Credit: Palomar Observatory/Caltech]

On June 7, at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in the Forested Mountain outside San Diego, members of the Pauma Band of Indigenous Peoples gathered to celebrate the naming of the first known asteroid to spin fully into orbit. of Venus. The asteroid was originally discovered in 2020 by the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, which operates at the Palomar Observatory. Some time after its discovery, the ZTF team decided to ask the Pauma Group, whose ancestral lands include the mountainous region where the observatory is located, if they would like to give the new cosmic discovery a name of their choosing.

In the end, the indigenous group chose to name the asteroid ‘Ayló’chaxnim, which means “Venus girl” in their native language of Luiseño.

Palomar’s naming ceremony included blessings, traditional Pauma songs and the reading of a poem titled Luiseño Songs of the Seasonswhich describes how “it will soon be time for the acorns to fall from the trees” when “Venus rises”.

Jonas Zmuidzinas (BS ’81), Director of Optical Observatories at Caltech and Merle Kingsley Professor of Physics at Caltech, addressed the Pauma Group at the ceremony. “The systematic study of the night sky is actually a very old activity. It’s easy to see why – just look out on a dark and clear night, especially in a place like Palomar, and let the magnificent beauty of the night sky fill you with a sense of wonder and awe. Your ancestors, dating back thousands of years, were very adept at studying the night sky and used their knowledge to develop calendars, mark the seasons and find their way when traveling,” he said. “The ancestors of the Pauma band were actually the first palomar astronomers.”

“An encounter with a planet likely threw the asteroid into the orbit of Venus,” explained Tom Prince, Ira S. Bowen Professor Emeritus of Physics at Caltech and co-investigator of ZTF, in a previous Caltech article on the discovery.

If similar asteroids with orbits that fall entirely within the orbit of Venus are discovered in the future, they will belong to the ‘Ayló’chaxnim asteroid family (the official names of the asteroid families derive from the name of the first object found in the class).

George Helou, ZTF co-investigator and director of IPAC, an astronomy center at Caltech, said the ZTF team asked the Pauma Group to name the asteroid as a “celebration of their language, their history and their connection to the night sky”.

Patti Dixon, a member of the Pauma Group and a professor of Native American studies at Palomar College outside San Diego, says she and her fellow tribesmen originally wanted to name the asteroid “the daughter of Venus,” but the word was too long in their native language Luiseño to be accepted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the official body that assigns names to celestial bodies. Dixon said she thought the word “girl” meant the asteroid was part of Venus, but in the end they settled on “Venus girl”, or ‘Ayló’chaxnim.

Naming the asteroid and related activities will inspire Pauma’s children to learn more about science, said Jessica Petri, director of the Pauma Band Education Center. “This event will expose children to the impressive observatory located in their backyard,” she says.

The Pauma Band, officially known as the Pauma Band of Mission, or Luiseño, Indians, is one of six native tribes in the San Diego area that belong to the Luiseño Indian Tribe. The ancestral lands of the Luiseño peoples include the Palomar Mountain, where the Palomar Observatory is located.

“Some of the tastiest acorns, black oak acorns, are only found at the top of the mountain,” Dixon explains. “As part of our traditions, we bring our burlap sacks up the mountain, collect the acorns, carry them and dry them, squash and leeches, and finally make a Jell-O type meal called wíiwish.”

“Hunting and gathering are part of our traditions,” she says, “The movement of the stars and Venus is also part of our traditions. Science can affirm traditional truths but also show that science will not harm truths.

This is not the first time that asteroids discovered in Palomar have been named in the Luiseño language. In 2009, Jean Mueller, a retired telescope operator who has worked at Palomar for more than 30 years, worked with the Pauma Group to name three asteroids she discovered (Mueller also discovered 11 additional asteroids, 107 supernovae and 15 comets during his stay at Palomar. ). The three asteroids, named after the Luiseño gods, are: Tukmit (Father Sky), Tomaiyowit (Mother Earth) and Kwiila (Black Oak).

ZTF is funded by the National Science Foundation and an international collaboration of partners. Additional support comes from Caltech and the Heising-Simons Foundation. ZTF data is processed and archived by IPAC. NASA supports ZTF’s search for near-Earth objects through the Near-Earth Object Observing Program.

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Nohemi M. Moore