Queta - The Story Behind the Name

Apr 28, 2021

By David Dezell Turner, Lucy Intern

Queta, Lucy’s most recently discovered target and the only known satellite of Eurybates, ushers in a new era for Trojan asteroid naming.

For over 100 years since the first Trojan asteroids were discovered in 1906, every single Trojan asteroid has been named after a character from Homer’s The Iliad. Astronomers even went as far as to christen the L4 Lagrange point the “Greek camp” and the L5 Lagrange point the “Trojan camp,” doing their best to only name asteroids found in L4 after the Greek characters and L5 after the Trojan characters. This naming convention worked for a while since, as anyone who has read The Iliad can attest, there are many, many, many names to choose from.

"The Anger of Achilles" by Jacques-Louis David (1819) depicts Achilles, Clytaemnestra, Iphigenia, and Agamemnon, all of whom have asteroids named for them (though (179) Klytaemnestra, (112) Iphigenia are both actually in the main belt). Source: Kimbell Art Museum

However, recently the International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the association in charge of naming astronomical objects — came face-to-face with a wonderful problem: there are many more Trojan asteroids than there are names in The Iliad. The IAU needed a new naming convention, and preferably one that would also pay tribute to the original.

Instead of ancient Greek war heroes, smaller Trojan asteroids will now be named after a group of modern-day heroes: Olympic and Paralympic athletes. This is a fitting successor to the Homeric names, since the Olympic Games were originally an ancient Greek tradition. Keith Noll, Lucy’s Project Scientist and the Vice Chair of the IAU’s Working Group for Small Bodies Nomenclature, helped devise the new naming convention. One reason it appealed to him is that “the Olympics are, in some ways, sort of a much less violent mode of competition [than war],” he explained. In ancient Greece, warring city-states would even cease fighting so their contestants could compete. Noll also wanted to represent a more diverse selection of people with this new naming convention, since most of the characters for which the Trojans are named are men from the same general geographic region. Before the new tradition was announced, the only Trojan asteroids named after women were (15094) Polymele and (16974) Iphthime, the latter of which Noll discovered. By naming newly discovered Trojans after Olympic and Paralympic athletes, the names will represent a set of unique individuals with different genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and abilities. “We’re not gonna always just only pick medal winners,” Noll added. “We want to make sure that we’re being representative of the whole world.”

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Enriqueta (Queta) Basilio making history as the first woman to light the Olympic caldron in 1968. Credit Getty Images/Bettman.

The first Trojan asteroid named under this new convention is Queta, the satellite of Eurybates that was discovered by the Lucy team in 2020. Queta is named after Mexican track and field athlete Norma Enriqueta “Queta” Basilio Sotelo. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, she became the first woman in history to light the Olympic cauldron. Basilio was born on July 15, 1948 in Mexicali, Baja California. Prior to being the final torchbearer at the Olympics, Basilio was a national track and field champion; she also finished seventh in the 80 meters hurdles at the 1967 Pan American Games. Basilio discovered – along with the rest of the public – that she was chosen to light the Olympic cauldron three months before the Olympics, when it was announced in a newspaper. When a New York Times reporter asked the twenty-year-old athlete why she thought she was selected, she reportedly shrugged and replied (through a translator), “Maybe it’s because here in Mexico [men and women] have the same rights.” She was the last of 2,778 torchbearers in that relay, which took place over 8,000 miles (13,000 km) of land and sea, from Olympia, Greece to Mexico City, Mexico. As Basilio raced up the 90 steps to the cauldron at Estadio Olímpico Universitario, the 100,000 spectators present and the millions watching on television knew they were witnessing a historic moment. Basilio went on to run a leg of the Summer Olympics torch relay in 2004, the first Olympic torch relay to cross every habitable continent. She passed away in 2019. To this day, she is one of only two women in history to light the cauldron at the Summer Olympics by themselves.

Though asteroid Queta was originally discovered by the Lucy team using the Hubble Space Telescope in January of 2020, it couldn’t be named immediately. The International Astronomical Union, the organization that officially names astronomical objects, requires that an asteroid’s orbit be well known before it can be named. This prevents asteroids from receiving multiple names; if an object’s orbit is not well known, its future position cannot be accurately predicted, and a future astronomer could observe it and mistakenly think they have discovered something new. Shortly after the Lucy team discovered Queta, both it and Eurybates moved behind the Sun, preventing the team from observing it. However, the asteroids emerged from behind the Sun in July of last year, and since then, the Lucy team was able to precisely define Queta’s orbit through several observations with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The name “Queta” was selected for Eurybates’ satellite because Basilio’s role was similar to that of Eurybates, a Greek herald. In ancient Greece, heralds were messengers in the service of kings or governments, an occupation that sometimes involved running long distances. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, a herald named Pheidippides ran 260 km (160 mi) from Athens to Sparta to request the Spartans’ aid in the Battle of Marathon. (It is from this legend that we get the word “marathon.”) Heralds were also tasked with announcing the start of the ancient Olympic Games, similar to how the torch ceremony announces the start of the modern Olympic Games. Though the torch ceremony was not a part of the ancient Olympics, it is inspired by an ancient Greek tradition called the lampadedromia, a relay race in which the runners pass a torch while trying to keep its sacred fire burning. As a trailblazer ushering in a new era of inclusivity in the Olympic Games, Queta is an appropriate herald for this new era of Trojan asteroid exploration.