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Newly spotted asteroid near Venus earns name from Pauma band of Native Americans

A diagram shows the orbit of 'Ayló'chaxnim.
A diagram shows the orbit of 'Ayló'chaxnim. (Image credit: Caltech-IPAC/R. Hurt)

A Native American tribe in what's now California has named a unique asteroid at the request of scientists who discovered it.

Two years ago, astronomers operating the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) discovered the first known asteroid to circle the sun within the orbit of Venus. But until now, it was known only as 2020 AV2.

The Native American Pauma band's ancestral land comprises the area around the Palomar Observatory of the California Institute of Technology, where ZTF is located. During a ceremony of blessing and songs held on June 7, a group of Pauma bestowed upon the asteroid the name 'Ayló'chaxnim. (It's pronounced approximately like eye-LO-chax-nihm, where the x marks a sound similar to that at the end of the word loch.) Appropriately, the name means "Venus girl" in the tribe's language, Luiseño.

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According to a university statement, the research team approached the Pauma to name the asteroid in what ZTF co-investigator George Helou called a "celebration of their language, history, and connection to the night sky." The Pauma originally wanted to name the asteroid "Venus's daughter," indicating its close relationship to the planet, but the Luiseño translation was too long to be approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the governing body in charge of naming celestial objects.

The naming celebrations included Pauma band members of all ages visiting the observatory. 

"Your ancestors, going back many thousands of years, were very skilled at studying the night sky, and used their knowledge to develop calendars, to mark the seasons, and to find their way on journeys," Jonas Zmuidzinas, an astronomer and director of Caltech Optical Observatories, said at the ceremony. "The ancestors of the Pauma band were in fact the first Palomar astronomers."

Pauma band member Patti Dixon, a professor of American Indian Studies at Palomar College, was excited by the connection between her tribe's traditions and the contemporary observatory. "This event will expose children to the awesome observatory in their backyard," she said in the press release.

The relationship between the Pauma band and the Palomar Observatory is not brand new. In 2009, retired telescope operator Jean Mueller worked with the Pauma band to name three asteroids she had discovered in the late 1980s and early '90s after Luiseño gods: Tukmit (Father Sky), Tomaiyowit (Earth Mother) and Kwiila (Black Oak).

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Space.com contributing writer Stefanie Waldek is a self-taught space nerd and aviation geek who is passionate about all things spaceflight and astronomy. With a background in travel and design journalism, as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, she specializes in the budding space tourism industry and Earth-based astrotourism. In her free time, you can find her watching rocket launches or looking up at the stars, wondering what is out there. Learn more about her work at www.stefaniewaldek.com (opens in new tab).