An Asteroid Named for Brashear





From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



(Copyright 1996 PG Publishing Co. Do not reprint.)

His friend and benefactor Andrew Carnegie has one. James Keeler, his predecessor as director of the Allegheny Observatory, has one. Bruce Hapke, an alive and kicking University of Pittsburgh planetary scientist, has one.

Now, 75 years since his death, John A. Brashear finally has an asteroid named after him, too.

"He should have had an asteroid named in his honor long ago," said Truman Kohman, a retired Carnegie Mellon University chemistry professor and an amateur astronomer who has helped correct the oversight.

Several thousand asteroids -- minor planets and hunks of rock that orbit the sun in a belt between Mars and Jupiter -- have been named to honor scientists and celebrities, Kohman said. But it was only last year that one was finally named for Brashear, the Pittsburgh optical craftsman who built many of the tools astronomers have used to discover asteroids, as well as to study stars.

Brashear, born in 1840, worked for 20 years as a millwright. But his love of astronomy spurred him to teach himself the art of making mirrors and lenses in his South Side workshop.

Under the wing of Samuel Langley, the first director of the Allegheny Observatory, he gained international scientific acclaim in the late 19th century for producing astronomical optics of then-unparalleled precision.

Despite having completed only six years of public school and four months of trade school, he became director of the observatory in 1898, succeeding Keeler. The Brownsville native ground the mirrors and lenses for the observatory's telescopes, as well as raising much of the money to build the facility in Riverview Park.

"Uncle John," as he was known, was held in such high regard that his lack of academic credentials didn't stop him from serving as acting chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh -- then the Western University of Pennsylvania -- for three years beginning in 1901.

His scientific optical business survived and ultimately become part of today's Contraves Inc. The O'Hara-based manufacturer of precision instruments is now polishing a 27-foot-diameter mirror, which will be the world's largest single telescope mirror when installed in the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Brashear constructed the optical elements for telescopes at such leading centers as the Lick Observatory in California and the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. The German astronomer Max Wolf used photographic instruments designed by Brashear to discover many asteroids.

Yet no one thought to name an asteroid after Brashear, who died in 1920. Then, in 1992, the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh began refurbishing an 11-inch refractor telescope built by Brashear. The telescope had been built to view Halley's comet when it swung by Earth in 1910, but had been crated and unused for decades. That restored telescope, housed in a new wing of the association's Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park, saw its first light in October.

To commemorate the restoration, Kohman, a long-time member of the association, petitioned the Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science at Harvard Observatory to honor Brashear.

The asteroid selected for Brashear -- Minor Planet 5502 -- is one of only a few thousand minor planets whose orbit around the sun has been precisely determined. Edward Bowell, a Lowell Observatory astronomer and one of the most prolific asteroid finders of all time, discovered 5502 on March 1, 1984.

Alas, 5502 Brashear, measuring as little as 6 miles in diameter, is too small to be seen through Wagman's 11-inch refractor, which will be open for a public observing session during the Wagman Winterfest that begins at 4 p.m. Feb. 24 (1996).

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