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Brian G. Marsden

Brian Geoffrey Marsden
Born (1937-08-05)August 5, 1937
Cambridge, England
Died November 18, 2010(2010-11-18) (aged 73)
Burlington, Massachusetts
Alma mater New College, Oxford
Yale University
Known for Minor Planet Center

Brian Geoffrey Marsden (5 August 1937 – 18 November 2010)[1][2] was a British astronomer and the longtime director of the Minor Planet Center (MPC) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (director emeritus from 2006 to 2010).[3]


  • Education 1
  • Life 2
  • Family 3
  • Honours 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Marsden was educated at The Perse School in Cambridge, New College, Oxford and Yale University.


Marsden specialized in celestial mechanics and astrometry, collecting data on the positions of asteroids and comets and computing their orbits, often from minimal observational information and providing their future positions on International Astronomical Union (IAU) circulars. In addition to serving as MPC director since 1978, he served as the director of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) from 1968 to 1999.[4] He was president of Commission 6, and Commission 20 the IAU.[5]

Marsden helped recover once lost asteroids and lost comets. Some asteroid and comet discoveries of previous decades were "lost" because not enough observational data had been obtained at the time to determine a reliable enough orbit to know where to look for re-observation at future dates. Occasionally, a newly discovered object turns out to be a rediscovery of a previously lost object, which can be determined by calculating its orbit backwards into the past and matching calculated positions with the previously recorded positions of the lost object. In the case of comets this is especially tricky because of nongravitational forces that can affect their orbits (one of which is emission of jets of gas from the comet nucleus), but Marsden has specialized in calculating such nongravitational forces. Notably, he successfully predicted the 1992 return of the once-lost Comet Swift-Tuttle.

In May 1993, Marsden concluded that the trajectory of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 would put it onto a course to collide with Jupiter in July 1994, marking the first ever time that a cometary-planetary impact was successfully predicted in advance.

In 1998, he miscalculated that an asteroid, (35396) 1997 XF11 had a small, but non-zero, probability of striking the Earth in 2028. Marsden chose to issue a press release, which Robert Roy Britt called a false alarm.[6]

  • "... astronomers created a media storm by announcing that an asteroid could collide with Earth in 2028, only to revise the estimates hours later."—Gretchen Vogel, Science, 20 March 1998

Other asteroid researchers demonstrated within hours that the computation was in error and Marsden himself admitted the announcement was a strategy which needed "rethinking", and NASA asked astronomers not to sound a public alarm like that again but to communicate with each other.[7] He took some criticism for publicizing this prediction right when movie companies were publicizing films like "Deep Impact" (see also Science by press conference). However, Marsden justified his actions with the argument that the problem of detecting asteroids needs more attention:

  • "Much as the incident was bad for my reputation, we needed a scare like that to bring attention to this problem." (Scientific American magazine, 2003)[8]

Follow-up work determined that an impact would be unlikely.[9]

He once proposed that Pluto should be cross-listed as both a planet and a minor planet and assigned the asteroid number 10000; however, this proposal was not accepted. A similar proposal was, however, finally accepted in 2006 when Pluto was designated minor planet 134340 and also declared a dwarf planet.

  • Marsden won enmity with a segment of the public as a leader of the campaign to downgrade Pluto. Partly at his urging, the International Astronomical Union voted at a meeting in Prague in 2006 to designate Pluto and three asteroids “dwarf planets.”[8]
Asteroids discovered: 1
37556 Svyaztie Aug 28, 1982 with N. S. Chernykh


He married Nancy Lou Zissell; they had a daughter, Cynthia, and a son, Jonathan.[9] He credits his mother for inspiring his interest in astronomy when she showed him an solar eclipse on September 10, 1942; that the date and time could be projected far in advance very much impressed him.[10]



Named after him


  1. ^  
  2. ^ "MPEC 2010-W10 : BRIAN MARSDEN (1937 August 5-2010 November 18)". Minor Planet Center. November 18, 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  3. ^ DENNIS HEVESI (November 22, 2010). "Brian Marsden, Tracker of Comets, Dies at 73". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ Kelly Beatty (November 18, 2010). "Brian G. Marsden (1937-2010)". Sky and Telescope. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Pointless Asteroid Scare
  7. ^ Run for your lives! (Uh, never mind.)
  8. ^ a b Death of Brian Marsden
  9. ^ a b Thomas H. Maugh II (November 20, 2010). "Brian Marsden dies at 73; astronomer who tracked comets and asteroids". The Los Angeles Times. 
  10. ^ "Brian Marsden".  
  11. ^
  12. ^ "Gruppe 2: Fysikkfag (herunder astronomi, fysikk og geofysikk)" (in Norwegian).  

External links

  • (13 March 1998)The New York Times"Man in the News; A Cheery Herald of Fear: Brian Geoffrey Marsden" in
  • Vol. 109, No.1 (February 1999)The Journal of the British Astronomical Association – the true story" in 11"1997 XF
  • The Great Asteroid Scare - Marsden's announcement about XF11 made front page headlines
  • Obituary of Brian Marsden, The Daily Telegraph, 6 December, 2010
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