For David Williams, the Final Frontier was just a beginning.
Star Trek’s example has led many to explore the universe around us for real. There is no shortage of stories about such inspiration: Mae Jemison, the first female African American astronaut for NASA, famously credited Nichelle Nichols’ role as Lieutenant Uhura for her scientific career and Space Shuttle service, and came full circle by appearing on Star Trek: The Next Generation herself in the 1990s.
Williams, an Indiana native watching reruns of the Original Series featuring Uhura along with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy after school in the ’70s, was embarking on a journey that would include etching his name in the sky — and that’s just so far.
The Phoenix planetary geologist and associated research professor is one of two Arizona State University scientists to be honored recently by having an asteroid named after them by the International Astronomical Union.
A faculty member in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, he’s also president of the United Federation of Phoenix, the second-longest continuous Star Trek fan club in the world, celebrating its 40th anniversary next year.
Williams joined the UFP in the early ’90s when he attended a Star Trek convention in Phoenix during graduate school. He rejoined the group in 1998 after returning to ASU for postdoctoral research. He’s currently serving his fifth non-consecutive stint as fan club president.
The Original Series remains Williams’ favorite. “It is what inspired me to become a scientist,” he said. Deep Space Nine is his favorite of the many spinoffs, “as the characters showed the greatest growth and change over the seven years of the TV series.”
While he remains a devoted member of the Star Trek fan community, Williams relishes his role in real-life space exploration.
“Doing planetary science research is as close as we can get to exploring ‘strange, new worlds.’ I really enjoy working on NASA robotic planetary missions, and it is exciting to be among the first people to see the surfaces of planetary objects for the first time.”
Though several of Williams’ colleagues in the School of Earth and Space Exploration have had asteroids named in their honor, this is a first — and, maybe, only — for him personally.
“Most scientists who study the Solar System, if they are very lucky, will have one object named after them,” he said. “Asteroids are the only objects that can be named after living people.”
So if another heavenly body is to bear his name, that decision will most likely be left to the next generation.
Williams’ colleague Phil Christensen was also honored for his work with an asteroid naming along with Williams in July. Christensen’s research focus is on the Red Planet, with work on infrared equipment for NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey spacecraft and Mars Exploration rovers, though he has a broader interest in the Solar System and has spent several years on asteroid mission work involving scouting for mining opportunities.
While there are occasionally fears that an asteroid could be hazardous to us on Earth, they clearly hold great potential to benefit humanity as well if we can continue our off-planet explorations.
“Asteroids are the leftover remains from the formation of the Solar System, most of which orbit in the Main Belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter,” Williams said. “However, there is a group we call Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), whose orbits come close to and occasionally cross the Earth’s orbit about the Sun. These asteroids are potentially dangerous because they can collide with Earth — an asteroid impact 65 million years ago killed off the dinosaurs — but they are also a resource that we can utilize, because they have elements that we could exploit to help build a space-faring civilization.”
The asteroid named for Williams has not yet been characterized, so it’s not clear what kind of rock it comprises and how it could be harnessed.
“It is possible that, because its orbit is very close to that of asteroid 4 Vesta, that it might have come from there, and thus be made of the same basaltic minerals that Vesta was made,” Williams said,” referring to one of the largest asteroids in the Solar System, second only to dwarf-planet Ceres. He said Vesta debris can be found on Earth in the form of a particular family of meteorites called HEDs (howardite-eucrite-diogenite).
“His” asteroid — designated 10461, Dawilliams — orbits about 2.42 astronomical units from the Earth in the Main Belt. One AU is the distance from the Sun to the Earth. The object was discovered in 1978.