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Ken Kingery
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008

IU Asteroid Program "records" final chapter

April 7, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana Asteroid Program began with a borrowed lens and a bet over a chocolate ice cream cone. Almost 60 years later, its final chapter was written with the naming of a heavenly body after one of the most dedicated staff members Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Astronomy has ever seen.

Frank Edmondson

Emeritus Professor Frank Edmondson manipulates the 10-inch lens telescope at the Goethe Link Observatory in Brooklyn, Indiana, in the 1950's. Over half a century later, Edmondson would name the final asteroid discovered by the telescope after Brenda Records, a dedicated assistant to the Astronomy Department for over 20 years.

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The program -- launched in 1949 by Hoosier astronomy legend Frank Edmondson -- aimed to locate and calculate the orbits of asteroids "lost" during World War II. During the next 28 years, the program also identified 119 new asteroids by studying more than 3,500 image plates showing 12,000 asteroid images. But because asteroids are not named until their orbits are calculated and confirmed, the final IU asteroid wasn't named until earlier this year, more than 40 years after the program ceased searching the skies.

Frank Edmondson, now professor emeritus of the Department of Astronomy, headed the program when this last asteroid was discovered, thus was responsible for its naming -- he named it in honor of Brenda Records, who recently retired as office manager of the astronomy department after 20 years of exemplary service.

"I did not expect it at all," said Records, who now spends her time at home and visiting her grandchildren in Louisville. "I was very surprised and honored that Frank named the asteroid after me."

Edmondson named the final IU asteroid, "Records," partly due to her efforts as office manager and administrative assistant, and partly in recognition of her hard work transcribing his book, AURA and its U.S. National Observatories. Records -- one of the few people who could read Edmondson's handwriting -- spent years typing his manuscript, which was written in longhand.

"Brenda was a very important part of the astronomy department for a very long time and instrumental in getting my book published," said Edmondson. "We were very lucky to have her."

During the Indiana Asteroid Program's tenure, Edmondson and company discovered many asteroids and named them after Indiana astronomers and faculty, both recent and retired. Some familiar names include IU Presidents Bryan and Wells, IU astronomers K.P. Williams and Wilbur Cogshall, current IU faculty members James Glazier and Stuart Mufson, and famous Indiana astronaut Gus Grissom.

"There are some pretty major chunks of rocks -- some the size of Bloomington -- floating around out there bearing the names of some very famous IU faculty, staff and alumni," said IU Astronomy Professor Emeritus R. Kent Honeycutt, who has served as chair of the astronomy department twice and is currently director of the university's Goethe Link Observatory.

Asteroid location

Emeritus Professor Frank Edmondson looks on as Esther Barnhart -- wife of Philip Barnhart (M.A. Astronomy 1955) -- takes precise measurements of an asteroid's location. By comparing locations of an asteroid on different plates taken an hour apart, its orbit could be calculated.

Print-Quality Photo

Edmondson, now 95, began building the astronomy department with a chocolate ice cream cone. In 1937, he bet Astronomy Department Chair William Cogshall a chocolate ice cream cone that recently appointed IU President Herman Wells would fund a graduate student fellowship position at the newly constructed Goethe Link Observatory in Brooklyn, Ind. At that time, the observatory belonged to Dr. Goethe Link, an Indianapolis surgeon and amateur astronomer.

Cogshall doubted they would get the funding, but must have wanted that chocolate ice cream cone, because he ultimately agreed. What he didn't know was that Edmondson had already convinced Wells to fund the position.

"You may question my morals," said Edmondson, grinning broadly. "But I was betting on a sure thing, and the bet got the money to start the program."

The position proved instrumental to both the Indiana Asteroid Program and the astronomy department because a decade later, the astronomer Edmondson hired -- James Cuffey -- located and borrowed a 10-inch lens from the University of Cincinnati to search for asteroids. Without that lens, the Indiana Asteroid Program would have never existed.

Edmondson and Cuffey decided to acquire the lens because the International Astronomy Union had issued a plea for help to search for asteroids with orbits that had been lost during the war due to observatories shutting down.

"We felt it was our duty to help if we could," said Edmondson. "And none of it would have happened without that 10-inch lens, Dr. Cuffey, or that chocolate ice cream cone."