Malala’s asteroid

Malala Yousafzai was born in 1997 in Swat, a remote valley among the mountains of northern Pakistan. Her family ran a group of schools, and at age 11 she wrote a blog post for the BBC about how the Taliban attempted to suppress schooling for girls. In October 2012, when she was 15, a man with a pistol boarded her school bus and fired three shots at her, one of which ripped along her head. She was unconscious for days, but recovered enough to be sent for treatment to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England (where, long earlier, I had my appendix out). Across Pakistan and the world there was an outpouring of support for Malala and for the cause that she continues to advocate: all children’s right to education. She became co-recipient (along with Kailash Satyarthi, Indian campaigner against child labor) of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. At 17, she was the youngest Nobel laureate ever.

Now she has had an asteroid named for her. It was discovered on June 23, 2010, by Dr. Amy Mainzer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Initially designated 2010 ML48, the asteroid later got the permanent number 316201.   Now, exercising her right to choose the name, Dr. Mainzer has chosen to honor Malala Yousafzai.

There is also, by the way, an asteroid named for Mainzer: 234750 Amymainzer.

Asteroid 316201 Malala is thought to be about 4 kilometers wide, an ordinary little dark member of the teeming Main Belt of rocks that circulate in the great space between Mars and Jupiter. I managed to find its orbital elements, so here is my map of its journey across the sky in 2015. If you superimpose this on the corresponding diagram in Astronomical Calendar 2015, you’ll see that Malala is at present traveling roughly south of the far larger asteroids Ceres, Vesta, and Eunomia. It’s more than 4 astronomical units (Sun-Earth distances) away from us, extremely faint, probably dimmer than magnitude 22, even when we pass it at opposition in August. It’s just for us an idea in the sky, undistinguished except for its name.


The name Yousafzai, by the way, is a historic one among the Pathan (or Pakhtun, or Pashtoon) people of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. Yûsuf, a common given name ib the Muslim world, is the Quran’s version of the name of the Biblical patriarch Joseph. Zai is equivalent to the Persian zâdeh, “born.” So Yousafzai is roughly “Josephson.” Swat was a princely state ruled by the Yousafzai clan, semi-indepent under the Afghan kingdom, the British empire, and Pakistan, until merged into Pakistan in 1969.


2 thoughts on “Malala’s asteroid”

  1. Malala Yousufzai is a remarkable human being. An asteroid naming may not be as news-worthy as a Nobel Peace Prize, but it is still a sincere and well deserved honor.

    In your list of tags for this post, you include “steroids.” Sometimes one little letter can make a big difference!

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