The Planet Zappafrank

Cosmik Debris

The universe, as Carl Sagan used to keep telling us, is full of billions and billions of stars. For a small sum, I'm told, you can send away to a company and get back a little certificate to show that you have named one. However, this is not its real name - outside the Solar System, a few famous stars have official names, the rest just have to make do with a number to distinguish them from their twinkling neighbours.

So, no chance of eternal fame there, then - give a star a name and nobody will know.

Inside the Solar System, though, things are different, and an official name can be given to anything found whirling around the Sun. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) even has a committee for this very purpose.

You may be forgiven for thinking that there's nothing left that hasn't been named: the Sun has a name, all the 9 planets have names, and all the moons of the 9 planets have names (see note on Science Page). Most of them are quite well-known, and seem likely to stick: you can name your dog after Pluto or your daughter after the Moon, but there aren't any more planets to be named after you.

Help I'm a Rock

This is where the asteroids come into the story. Beyond the planet Mars (4th Stone from the Sun), where there should be a planet, is in fact, a band of very large rocks. Some people think there used to be a planet there, but it broke up into pieces. In any event, there are more than 7000 of them, known as the asteroids, the largest of which is called Ceres, which is 933 km in diameter, and about twice as big as the next biggest. As a matter of fact, Ceres contains about 25% of the mass of all the asteroids combined - if you stuck them all back together again, the mass would be less than the Moon. Essentially, this means that there are a lot of little ones whizzing around: about 99% of those over 100 km in diameter are known, but only about half the ones between 10 km and 100 km. Hundreds more are discovered every year, all of which could be given names, and thus, after all, there is some hope of choosing a name for an otherwise anonymous heavenly body.

Discovered on May 11th, 1980, by Czech astronomer L. Brozek at Klet Observatory, asteroid No. 3834 was given the provisional name 1980 JE, which just indicates that it was the 5th minor planet to be discovered in the first half of May in that year. And so it might have remained, had not Zappa fan John Scialli embarked on a quest to get FZ recognised in the Heavens.

Planet of My Dreams

John tells the full story in an article in Issue 11 of Italian fanzine Debra Kadabra. Having unsuccesfully tried to get one of the planets in the constellation Virgo named after FZ, John was lucky enough in early 1994 to find an enthusiastic supporter in the person of Dr. Brian Marsden at the Minor Planet Center near Boston, who was involved in the aforementioned IAU Committee for naming things. It was Dr Marsden - admitting that the idea had crossed his mind at the time of Zappa's death the previous December - who suggested that an alternative request to name an asteroid might meet with the IAU's approval, and offered to steer it through the committee.

John's favourite choices of name proved, for a variety of reasons, to be unsuitable: No. 2813 had already been named after the astronomer Zappala, and there were quite a few beginning with 'Frank': namely Franklina (No.982), Franklin-Adams (No. 1925), Franke (No. 2824) and Franklinken (No. 2845). Subsequently, Franck (No. 4546) and Frankhubbard (No. 9662) have appeared (see note below), but on this occasion the name Zappafrank was settled on, and that is the name by which it was thenceforth referred by astronomers all over the world. It was felt that No. 3834 was an ideal choice, having been discovered by a Czech scientist, since FZ had been an icon of freedom to the people of that country in the period prior to 1989. President Vaclev Havel - a fan, whom FZ had met - although not able to endorse the request in an official capacity, evidently approved, and Dr Marsden claimed that he had never experienced such intense lobbying: the press reported hundreds - even thousands - of letters of support were sent to him before the committee met.

The announcement of the new name was made, as these things are, in a Minor Planet Circular on July 22nd, 1994. Such circulars are issued - usually in batches on the date of each full moon - by the IAU. New names are accompanied by a citation. In the case of Zappafrank, this read:

"(3834) Zappafrank = 1980 JE

Discovered 1980 May 11 by L. Brozek at Klet. Named in memory of Frank Zappa (1940-1993), rock musician and composer of innovative contemporary symphonic, chamber and electronic music. Zappa was an ecletic, self-trained artist and composer with incredible energy and a biting wit and his music transcends the usual music barriers. Before 1989 he was regarded as a symbol of democracy and freedom by many people in Czechoslovakia."

Not everyone, it seems, was delighted at the honour. The Brighton Evening Argus, of August 15th, 1994 reported:

"Some astronomers have complained to the International Astronomical Union about moves to name an asteroid Zappafrank after exotic rock star Frank Zappa, who died of cancer last year"

Under the heading FRANK ZAPPA'S STAR RISES IN THE HEAVENS, the Sunday Telegraph of August 14th, stated that:

"the decision by the International Astronomical Union, which is to discuss the naming of heavenly bodies at its triennial conference this week in The Hague, has angered some astronomers."

The paper quotes Kaare Aksnes, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Oslo, as saying:

"The naming of asteroids is getting out of hand . . . I would say 99.5 per cent of the names are OK, but there are some I think are not so appropriate."

This was taken as a reference to FZ, although former Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr ('Lennon', 'McCartney', 'Harrison' and 'Starr', Nos. 4147 - 4150), Eric Clapton ('Clapton', No. 4305), Mike Oldfield ( 'Oldfield', No. 5656), and Jean-Michel Jarre ('Jarre', No. 4422) had previously been honoured in the same way.

Professor Aksnes was reported as saying he considered FZ "a borderline case":

"As long as a person is serious and well respected in his profession, it's OK -- but that's not the case with all rock musicians."

'Serious' and 'well-respected' are precisely the kind of adjectives I think we would all apply to FZ. In any event, the Zappa Hotline (818-PUMPKIN) got it right when their message after the announcement said:

"So even though Zappafrank is now a minor planet, we consider it a major achievement."

Zappafrank, the Planet Zappa, is not a large world: although its precise size is not known, it is thought to be 6 - 13 km across. Its distance from the Sun ranges from 310 - 454 million km, and it takes 4.1 years to complete a full orbit. A powerful telescope is required to see it as it is some 4000 times less bright that the faintest object visible to the naked eye.

Nevertheless, it is by far the largest object yet named after FZ, and should remain in the sky for a good few years to come. A topic very much in the news these days is the possibility of an asteroid colliding with the Earth, and rendering all life extinct. As a matter of fact, 4 times in the past decade asteroids have passed nearer to us than the Moon, the nearest, in December, 1994 - less than 6 months after the naming of Zappafrank - passing only 112,000 km [70,000 miles] from us - about a third of the distance to the Moon! Zappafrank is not one of these, so, who knows, it may even outlast the human race.

Note: some years later, in August 1996, an asteroid was discovered by the San Vittore Observatory in Bologna, Italy. Initially designated 1996 PF5, it was subsequently numbered 16745 and named 'Zappa'. Many people believe that this is also a tribute to FZ. Not so. It refers to Italian astronomer Giovanni Zappa, who died in 1923.

John Scialli's story from the Debra Kadabra fanzine used to be on the website The Black Page, at For further information on Zappafrank, lists of asteroids, facts about dangerous asteroids - in fact, everything you ever wanted to know about minor planets - see the wonderful Minor Planet Center site.

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