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Asteroids Spoelhof and Griffioen
June 15, 2006

Asteroids discovered by students and professors at Calvin College now bear the names of two beloved Calvin retirees: former Calvin president Dr. William Spoelhof and former Calvin dean and physics department chair Roger Griffioen.

For more on the asteroids, the naming process, the Calvin observatory and the Calvin astronomy program see the observatory website.

Each asteroid is approximately the size of Calvin's entire Knollcrest campus.

Asteroid Spoelhof (previously known as 2004 XU3) was discovered December 3, 2004 by Calvin professor of physics and astronomy Larry Molnar. Asteroid Griffioen (previously known as 2003 RA11) was discovered on September 5, 2003 by Calvin student Andrew Vanden Heuvel.

Molnar notes that when a new asteroid is discovered it is given a provisional name, but that it must be tracked for a number of years to fully establish its orbit before the discoverer is given the privilege of naming it.

"When an object thought to be an asteroid is discovered," he says, "it is logged in at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Minor Planet Center and assigned a number indicating its order of discovery."

Once the asteroid's orbit is well-known (a process that often takes two to three years), the International Astronomical Union's Committee on Small Body Nomenclature invites the discoverer to suggest a name and explain the reasons for the naming.

Then it can take another couple of months before the committee approves or rejects the name.

Vanden Heuvel and Molnar, together with the Physics and Astronomy department at Calvin, chose Griffioen and Spoelhof to commemorate the establishment of the Calvin College observatory in 1970. This week they learned the suggested names had been approved.

Griffioen served Calvin for 37 years, including seven as an academic dean and 17 as physics chair.

Says Molnar: "He built a high-quality physics program, implemented the construction of a college observatory and played a formative role in the lives of many students."

Spoelhof, meanwhile, served as president of Calvin from 1951 to 1976 and among his many achievements was the establishment of Calvin's astronomy program, including the construction of an observatory in 1970.

"As president of the college during the launch of Sputnik," says Molnar, "it was clear to Spoelhof that science needed to be taught at the college much more completely than had been the case. In particular he felt astronomy and geology should be taught as specific topics, with laboratory science as well as lectures. He approached friends of Calvin about donating money for the observatory equipment and the te Velde family granted the college funds for the purchase of a telescope."

The Calvin astronomy program continues to grow.

In 2003, new, computer-controlled telescopes were purchased with National Science Foundation grant money: one replacing the 1970 instrument in the dome on campus, and a second one placed at a dark-sky site in Rehoboth, able to be operated over the internet by Calvin students.

"These telescopes," Molnar says, "are used for a wide range of observations by students in all astronomy courses, some physics courses and independent research projects. Classroom observations of asteroids have been a featured use since the commissioning of the new telescopes. Our goal is for students to understand better how real science works by aiming for a new discovery."

Molnar says searches for new asteroids have been carried out over four semesters now and the total of provisional designations assigned to Calvin discoveries is now over 60. And last semester Calvin student Josh Vanderhill found the first Calvin asteroid outside of the main belt: a so-called Trojan asteroid, which has an orbit locked to that of Jupiter.

"As far as we know," Molnar says, "this is the only astronomy class in the world in which discovery of a new solar system object is an assignment."