Asteroids named for 2 Lab researchers

July 11, 2023


The planets bear the names of Roman gods, which puts Cathy Plesko and Wendy Caldwell in exalted company, as each of these Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary-defense scientists now has an asteroid named after them.

The Working Group for Small Bodies Nomenclature published the names June 21 on behalf of the International Astronomical Union, dubbing asteroid 32105 “Plesko” and asteroid 32110 “Wendycaldwell.” Both were discovered in 2000.

Plesko is the principal investigator for Planetary Defense and the program manager for Advanced Simulation and Computing Verification and Validation at the Laboratory. In her work, she models asteroid impacts and deflection techniques and leads a team that tests the accuracy of physics simulations done on the Laboratory’s supercomputers. 

A mathematician and planetary scientist, Caldwell leads the Lab’s modeling of 16 Psyche, an asteroid that will be visited by a NASA research mission in 2026. Caldwell’s expertise includes modeling impact and explosion craters in rocky and metal targets.

Plesko and Caldwell, along with others at the Lab, modeled Psyche’s two largest impact structures to help determine the asteroid’s composition. Such information would be useful in understanding how to deflect an asteroid, should the need arise, and could also provide insight into the necessary tools for exploring similar bodies in the solar system.

Both researchers are members of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Investigation Team, a multi-agency international collaboration that deliberately crashed a spacecraft into another asteroid in 2022 to test kinetic impact as a deflection technique — it worked better than expected. The team is preparing a research paper based on the data from that far-flung mission.