Asteroids named after 2 LANL scientists for work on planetary defense

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LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists Wendy Caldwell and Cathy Plesko know the most unlikely surprises happen when you least expect it.

“This was a completely unexpected honor. I was at home when a colleague texted me and said, ‘Hey, congratulations,’” said Cathy Plesko. 

“I didn’t know they were going to do that, I was just at ballet doing my thing,” said Wendy Caldwell.

The organization that names objects in space is honoring them in a big way.

“Recently, the International Astronomical Union named asteroids after my colleague Wendy Caldwell and I,” said Plesko. 

The newly-named “Plesko” and “Wendy-Caldwell” asteroids are far away and do not pose a threat to Earth.

“We try not to name asteroids that might come and hit the Earth after people, because it would be a real bummer if your asteroid came in and wrecked civilization,” Plesko said. 

Plesko and Caldwell are at the forefront of planetary defense, using super computers at LANL. The pair work on simulations of how to stop asteroids and comets from hitting Earth, and how to avoid a global catastrophe.

“We all come together to establish, ‘Ok, what would happen if an asteroid of a particular size and composition hit the Earth?’” said Plesko. “We also do periodic emergency response drills with FEMA and international disaster agencies. So that we know that we’re something to come at us, we would be able to work together internationally to prevent an impact.”

There’s also room for new discoveries, like metal asteroids.

“Now, metal asteroids are super cool because we think that they’re planets that never fully formed, and also give us some insight into just how much energy it takes to affect a big hunk of metal in space,” said Caldwell.