Keys And Chords
Celebrations to mark Freddie Mercury’s 70th birthday received a cosmic boost on Sunday night as Brian May, Queen’s lead guitarist, announced that an asteroid nearly half a billion kilometres away had been named after the late singer.
In a move that links one of the most dazzling stars in history to one of the darker rocks in the solar system the International Astronomical Union confirmed that asteroid 17473, a 3.5km-wide ball of black rubble on the other side of Mars, shall henceforth be known as “Freddiemercury”
May, who has a PhD in astrophysics and an asteroid named after him already, revealed the name by video message to more than 1200 guests at the “Freddie for a Day” party at the Montreux Casino on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Behind the venue is the band’s former studio where Queen recorded a host of songs, from Under Pressure with David Bowie to Who Wants To Live Forever?
Discovered in 1991 by the Belgian astronomer Henri Debehogne, the freshly-named asteroid swings around the sun at 20km per second. Its slightly elliptical orbit never comes closer than 350 million kilometres to Earth, meaning that the heavenly body called Freddiemercury poses no imminent danger to the planet.
The space rock reflects only one third of the sunlight that falls on it and at such distance can only be seen with a telescope. “It’s like a cinder in space as many of these asteroids are,” said May. “You need a pretty decent telescope to see it. It’s just a dot of light but it’s a very special dot of light and maybe one day we’ll get there.”
Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics at Oxford and presenter of The Sky at Night said: “I think it’s wonderful to name an asteroid after Freddie Mercury. He joins a list including all the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Bowie and, weirdly, the band Yes. Pleasingly, it’s on a slightly eccentric orbit about the sun, just as the man himself was.”
The list of famous names given to asteroids goes on and on. Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov, Douglas Adams and Bruce Springsteen all have space rocks named after them, as do the characters Don Quixote, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.
Another member of the asteroid club is Monica Grady, the Open University professor of planetary science, who lends her name to asteroid 4731. “It’s very appropriate that the King of Rock (or Queen of rock?) is remembered this way, with his very own piece of rock memorabilia,” she said.
Freddie’s sister, Kashmira Cooke, was due to attend the Montreux party hosted by his former personal assistant and cook Peter “Phoebe” Freestone. Guests were encouraged to wear yellow costumes for the night and dined on some of the star’s favourite dishes, including Louisianna chicken and onion tart.
Addressing the party, May thanked Joel Parker, astronomer and director at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, for almost single-handedly ensuring the asteroid was named after the Queen singer in time for the celebrations. “I’m honoured to have been part of getting the name officially recognised in time for Freddie’s 70th birthday,” Parker told the Guardian. “It’s wonderful that Brian May is also an astronomer, connecting the Earth-based Freddie to the cosmos-based Freddie.”
Parker said that anyone who wanted to catch a glimpse of Freddiemercury would need a telescope as it is only one ten thousandth of the brightness that the naked eye can see in a dark sky. “It’s not quite traveling at the speed of light,” Parker said. “But from an Earth perspective, this certainly has made a supersonic man out of him.”