How a Boulder Astronomer helped name an asteroid after Queen’s Freddie Mercury


5 Sep 2016 by Mitchell Byars
Asteroid 17473

Freddie on stage Sydney Australia 1985
Freddiemercury unveiled on what would have been singer’s 70th birthday In this 1985 file photo, singer Freddie Mercury of the rock group Queen performs at a concert in Sydney, Australia. (Gill Allen / Associated Press)

On Monday, Queen’s Brian May announced that, with the help of a Boulder astronomer, he’d gotten an asteroid named after the late Queen frontman. As the lead singer of the rock band Queen, the late Freddie Mercury was always a star. Now he’s an asteroid, too. Mercury’s bandmate Brian May and a Boulder astronomer got an asteroid named after the Queen frontman for what would have been his 70th birthday on Monday.

“I love the fact that the asteroid Freddie Mercury is a nice bridge between science and art,” said Joel Parker, an astronomer and director at the Southwest Research Institute’s Boulder office. Parker said he has gotten to know May — who is an avid astronomer in addition to being Queen’s lead guitarist — through Parker’s involvement with the Rosetta mission. May has an asteroid named after him, and even Parker has one, too. So he found it unusual there was no asteroid named after Mercury. “I was surprised to find that out,” Parker said. “The Beatles have asteroids, Jimi Hendrix has an asteroid, I thought for sure Freddie Mercury would have one. I brought it up with Brian, and he thought it was a great idea.” Parker said there are a collection of asteroids that are awaiting names, and many of the scientists who discover them name them after their favorite celebrities. “It’s the new Hollywood star,” he said. “Give it some time and I’m sure instead of having a tour of the houses of the stars, we’ll have tours of the asteroids of the stars.”

Parker and May were even able to find an asteroid that they felt fit: 1991 FM3. In addition to the initials already matching, 1991 was the year Mercury died. Now, through the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Centre, the asteroid is officially Asteroid 17473 Freddiemercury.

“It’s just a dot of light, but it’s a very special dot of light, and maybe one day we’ll get there,” May said in a video announcement of the naming. “All the remains for me to say is, ‘Happy birthday, Freddie.'”

While Parker said most celebrities just have their last names attached to an asteroid, Mercury’s full name had to be used to avoid confusion with a certain celestial body. “Of course, they couldn’t call it Mercury, there’s already a planet named Mercury,” Parker said. “Luckily ‘Freddie Mercury’ was short enough to fit.”

The asteroid in question is estimated to be between 3 kilometers and 5 kilometers in diameter, and orbits the sun about once every 3.5 years in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. “Before this, there was nothing particularly special about this particular asteroid,” Parker said. “But now, there’s another Mercury in the sky.”

And Parker emphasized that this particular asteroid will not become, as one of the band’s hits is called, a Killer Queen. “It’s not going to hit the Earth any time soon,” Parker said.