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Asteroid named for New Mexico State University

There's an asteroid out there with New Mexico State University's name on it.

y the name is Nemsu, adapted from NMSU in recognition of the university's contributions to astronomy.

"Nemsu is about five miles in diameter, so it's a pretty big chunk of real estate," said Wendee Wallach-Levy, who proposed the name to the International Astronomical Union, the official world body of astronomers.

"But don't worry," she added, "it's a main-belt asteroid with a nice circular orbit around the sun. Nemsu is not going to hit the Earth."

Wallach-Levy, a graduate of NMSU and wife of famous comet-hunter David Levy, one of the asteroid's discoverers, said she proposed the name to the IAU because of "the incredible contributions NMSU has made to astronomy and planetary science."

"For me, this understanding is a deeply personal one, since I knew Clyde Tombaugh, one of NMSU's first astronomers, quite well," she said.

The asteroid was discovered 11 years ago, on May 24, 1993, at Palomar Observatory in California by David Levy and Carolyn Shoemaker. The two, along with Eugene Shoemaker, also were co-discoverers of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which made headlines when it collided with Jupiter in 1994.

After the discoverers confirmed the asteroid's orbit, it was given a number - 24778.

The naming process took about six months, Wallach-Levy said.

"The IAU wants to be sure the name is worthy," she said. "Money cannot buy a name; it has to be based on good deeds."

There are other protocols as well. The IAU will not allow acronyms or initials, she said, so she added the "e" to turn the university's initials into a name.

Approval came in April. NMSU astronomers plan to make observations of Nemsu using the university's 1-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in preparation for a public event in the fall that will focus on asteroids in general and Nemsu as a specimen.

Wallach-Levy, who taught in the Las Cruces public schools for more than 20 years, now manages the Jarnac Observatory that she and David Levy operate at their home in Vail, Ariz., near Tucson.

She earned a Master of Arts in Teaching, with a concentration in physical education, at NMSU in 1975.

The official citation for the naming of Nemsu reads:

"Named in honor of New Mexico State University. This institution has developed one of the most advanced astronomy programs in the United States. During the critical space-development years of the 1960s and 1970s, its planetary patrol program, inspired by Clyde Tombaugh and Brad Smith, provided a badly needed consistency in imaging the planets. This asteroid honors the university's unique record of accomplishment in astronomy and to our understanding of the universe."

Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto, came to NMSU in 1955 and developed the university's astronomy research program. Brad Smith was the first to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy at NMSU, in 1972. The astronomy department was formally established as a stand-alone department in 1970.

The asteroid also honors the work of Reta Beebe and other well-known members of the NMSU astronomy department, Wallach-Levy said.