Provisional designation in astronomy is the naming convention applied to astronomical objects immediately following their discovery. The provisional designation is usually superseded by a permanent designation once a reliable orbit has been calculated. In the case of more than 900,000 minor planets, approximately a third remains provisionally designated, as hundreds of thousands have been discovered in the last two decades.
The current system of provisional designation of minor planets (asteroids, centaurs and trans-Neptunian objects) has been in place since 1925, and superseded several previous conventions, each of which was rendered obsolete by the increasing numbers of minor planet discoveries. A modern or new-style provisional designation consists of the year of discovery, followed by two letters and, optionally, a suffixed number.
For example, the provisional designation
2016 EK156 stands for the 3910th body identified during 1–15 March 2016:
A(first half of January) to
Y(second half of December), while the letters
Zare not used (see table below). The first half is always the 1st through to the 15th of the month, regardless of the numbers of days in the second "half". Thus,
Eindicates the period from March 1 to 15.
Iis not used (to avoid potential confusions with the digit 1). Because modern techniques typically yield hundreds if not thousands of discoveries per half-month, the subscript number is appended to indicate the number of times that the letters from A to Z have cycled through. The suffix
156indicates 156 completed cycles (156 cycles × 25 letters = 3900), while
Kis the 10th position in the current cycle. Thus, K156 stands for the 3910th minor planet discovered in a half-month.
|First letter |
K07Tf8Ain the packed form, where "K07" stands for the year 2007, and "f8" for the subscript number 418.
Minor planets discovered during the Palomar–Leiden survey including three subsequent Trojan-campaigns, which altogether discovered more than 4,000 asteroids and Jupiter trojans between 1960 and 1977, have custom designations that consist of a number (order in the survey) followed by a space and one of the following identifiers:
For example, the asteroid 6344 P-L is the 6344th minor planet in the original Palomar–Leiden survey, while the asteroid 4835 T-1 was discovered during the first Trojan-campaign. The majority of these bodies have since been assigned a number and many are already named.
The first four minor planets were discovered in the early 19th century, after which there was a lengthy gap before the discovery of the fifth. Astronomers initially had no reason to believe that there would be countless thousands of minor planets, and strove to assign a symbol to each new discovery, in the tradition of the symbols used for the major planets. For example, 1 Ceres was assigned a stylized sickle (⚳) 2 Pallas a lozenge with a crossed handle (⚴) 3 Juno a Venus mirror crowned by a star (, later became a star with a crossed handle, ⚵) and 4 Vesta a sacred fire altar ().
It soon became apparent, though, that continuing to assign symbols was impractical and provided no assistance when the number of known minor planets was in the tens. Johann Franz Encke introduced a new system in the Berliner Astronomisches Jahrbuch (BAJ) for 1854, published in 1851, in which he used encircled numbers instead of symbols. Encke's system began the numbering with Astrea which was given the number (1) and went through (11) Eunomia, while Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta continued to be denoted by symbols, but in the following year's BAJ, the numbering was changed so that Astraea was number (5).
The new system found popularity among astronomers, and since then, the final designation of a minor planet is a number indicating its order of discovery followed by a name. Even after the adoption of this system, though, several more minor planets received symbols, including 28 Bellona the whip and lance of Mars' martial sister, 35 Leukothea an ancient lighthouse and 37 Fides a Latin cross (). According to Webster's A Dictionary of the English Language, four more minor planets were also given symbols: 16 Psyche, 17 Thetis, 26 Proserpina, and 29 Amphitrite. However, there is no evidence that these symbols were ever used outside of their initial publication in the Astronomische Nachrichten.
Several different notation and symbolic schemes were used during the latter half of the nineteenth century, but the present form first appeared in the journal Astronomische Nachrichten (AN) in 1892. New numbers were assigned by the AN on receipt of a discovery announcement, and a permanent designation was then assigned once an orbit had been calculated for the new object.
At first, the provisional designation consisted of the year of discovery followed by a letter indicating the sequence of the discovery, but omitting the letter I (historically, sometimes J was omitted instead). Under this scheme, 333 Badenia was initially designated 1892 A, 163 Erigone was 1892 B, etc. In 1893, though, increasing numbers of discoveries forced the revision of the system to use double letters instead, in the sequence AA, AB... AZ, BA and so on. The sequence of double letters was not restarted each year, so that 1894 AQ followed 1893 AP and so on. In 1916, the letters reached ZZ and, rather than starting a series of triple-letter designations, the double-letter series was restarted with 1916 AA.
Because a considerable amount of time could sometimes elapse between exposing the photographic plates of an astronomical survey and actually spotting a small Solar System object on them (witness the story of Phoebe's discovery), or even between the actual discovery and the delivery of the message (from some far-flung observatory) to the central authority, it became necessary to retrofit discoveries into the sequence — to this day, discoveries are still dated based on when the images were taken, and not on when a human realised they were looking at something new. In the double-letter scheme, this was not generally possible once designations had been assigned in a subsequent year. The scheme used to get round this problem was rather clumsy and used a designation consisting of the year and a lower-case letter in a manner similar to the old provisional-designation scheme for comets. For example, 1915 a (note that there is a space between the year and the letter to distinguish this designation from the old-style comet designation 1915a, Mellish's first comet of 1915), 1917 b. In 1914 designations of the form year plus Greek letter were used in addition.
Temporary designations are custom designation given by an observer or discovering observatory prior to the assignment of a provisional designation by the MPC. These intricate designations were used prior to the Digital Age, when communication was slow or even impossible (e.g. during WWI). The listed temporary designations by observatory/observer use uppercase and lowercase letters (
letter), digits, numbers and years, as well Roman numerals (
ROM) and Greek letters (
||Alger A, Alger CM|
||Alg A, Alg CM|
||Alma-Ata Nr. 1|
||1952 A1, A1|
||1956 x (Beograd), 1956 x|
|Heidelberg Obs.||Wolf [Nr.]
||Wolf Nr. 18, Wolf 18|
||Heid 1, Heid 234|
||G 1, G 21|
||T 9, T 16|
|La Plata Obs.||[La Plata]
||La Plata 1951 I, 1951 I|
||La Plata 1950 G, 1950 G|
||Asteroid B, B|
|Mount Wilson Obs.||[Asteroid]
||Asteroid A, A|
|Purple Mountain Obs.
||P.O. 32, P.O. 189|
||PO 32, PO 189|
|Crimean Astrophysical Obs.
|Simeiz Obs.|| SIGMA K
||1942 SIGMA K1, SIGMA K1|
| SIG K
||1942 SIG K1, SIG K1|
||sigma 1, sigma 229|
||Tokyo 1954 D|
||p (Uccle), p|
||x2 (Uccle), x2|
||1945 U 12, U 12|
||1917 W 15, 1923 W 21|
The system used for comets was complex previous to 1995. Originally, the year was followed by a space and then a Roman numeral (indicating the sequence of discovery) in most cases, but difficulties always arose when an object needed to be placed between previous discoveries. For example, after Comet 1881 III and Comet 1881 IV might be reported, an object discovered in between the discovery dates but reported much later couldn't be designated "Comet 1881 III½". More commonly comets were known by the discoverer's name and the year. An alternate scheme also listed comets in order of time of perihelion passage, using lower-case letters; thus "Comet Faye" (modern designation 4P/Faye) was both Comet 1881 I (first comet to pass perihelion in 1881) and Comet 1880c (third comet to be discovered in 1880).
The system since 1995 is similar to the provisional designation of minor planets. For comets, the provisional designation consists of the year of discovery, a space, ONE letter (unlike the minor planets with two) indicating the half-month of discovery within that year (A=first half of January, B=second half of January, etc. skipping I (to avoid confusion with the number 1 or the numeral I) and not reaching Z), and finally a number (not subscripted as with minor planets), indicating the sequence of discovery within the half-month. Thus, the eighth comet discovered in the second half of March 2006 would be given the provisional designation 2006 F8, whilst the tenth comet of late March would be 2006 F10.
If a comet splits, its segments are given the same provisional designation with a suffixed letter A, B, C, ..., Z, a, b, c..., z. One presumes that tracking beyond 52 fragments is unlikely.
If an object is originally found asteroidal, and later develops a cometary tail, it retains its asteroidal designation. For example, minor planet 1954 PC turned out to be Comet Faye, and we thus have "4P/1954 PC" as one of the designations of said comet. Similarly, minor planet 1999 RE70 was reclassified as a comet, and because it was discovered by LINEAR, it is now known as 176P/LINEAR (LINEAR 52) and (118401) LINEAR.
Provisional designations for comets are given condensed or "packed form" in the same manner as minor planets. 2006 F8, if a periodic comet, would be listed in the IAU Minor Planet Database as PK06F080. The last character is purposely a zero, as that allows comet and minor planet designations not to overlap.
Comets are assigned one of four possible prefixes as a rough classification. The prefix "P" (as in, for example, P/1997 C1, a.k.a. Comet Gehrels 4) designates a "periodic comet", one which has an orbital period of less than 200 years or which has been observed during more than a single perihelion passage (e.g. 153P/Ikeya-Zhang, whose period is 367 years). They receive a permanent number prefix after their second observed perihelion passage (see List of periodic comets).
Comets which do not fulfill the "periodic" requirements receive the "C" prefix (e.g. C/2006 P1, the Great Comet of 2007). Comets initially labeled as "non-periodic" may, however, switch to "P" if they later fulfill the requirements.
Comets which have been lost or have disintegrated are prefixed "D" (e.g. D/1993 F2, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9).
Finally, comets for which no reliable orbit could be calculated, but are known from historical records, are prefixed "X" as in, for example, X/1106 C1. (Also see List of non-periodic comets and List of hyperbolic comets.)
When satellites or rings are first discovered, they are given provisional designations such as "S/2000 J 11" (the 11th new satellite of Jupiter discovered in 2000), "S/2005 P 1" (the first new satellite of Pluto discovered in 2005), or "R/2004 S 2" (the second new ring of Saturn discovered in 2004). The initial "S/" or "R/" stands for "satellite" or "ring", respectively, distinguishing the designation from the prefixes "C/", "D/", "P/", and "X/" used for comets. These designations are sometimes written as "S/2005 P1", dropping the second space.
The prefix "S/" indicates a natural satellite, and is followed by a year (using the year when the discovery image was acquired, not necessarily the date of discovery). A one-letter code written in upper case identifies the planet such as J and S for Jupiter and Saturn, respectively (see list of one-letter abbreviations), and then a number identifies sequentially the observation. For example, Naiad, the innermost moon of Neptune, was at first designated "S/1989 N 6". Later, once its existence and orbit were confirmed, it received its full designation, "Neptune III Naiad".
The Roman numbering system arose with the very first discovery of natural satellites other than Earth's Moon: Galileo referred to the Galilean moons as I through IV (counting from Jupiter outward), in part to spite his rival Simon Marius, who had proposed the names now adopted. Similar numbering schemes naturally arose with the discovery of moons around Saturn and Mars. Although the numbers initially designated the moons in orbital sequence, new discoveries soon failed to conform with this scheme (e.g. "Jupiter V" is Amalthea, which orbits closer to Jupiter than does Io). The unstated convention then became, at the close of the 19th century, that the numbers more or less reflected the order of discovery, except for prior historical exceptions (see the Timeline of discovery of Solar System planets and their natural satellites). The convention has been extended to natural satellites of minor planets, such as "(87) Sylvia I Romulus".
The provisional designation system for minor planet satellites, such as asteroid moons, follows that established for the satellites of the major planets. With minor planets, the planet letter code is replaced by the minor planet number in parentheses. Thus, the first observed moon of 87 Sylvia, discovered in 2001, was at first designated S/2001 (87) 1, later receiving its permanent designation of (87) Sylvia I Romulus. Where more than one moon has been discovered, Roman numerals specify the discovery sequence, so that Sylvia's second moon is designated (87) Sylvia II Remus.
Packed designations are used in online and electronic documents as well as databases.
The Orbit Database (MPCORB) of the Minor Planet Center (MPC) uses the "packed form" to refer to all provisionally designated minor planets. The idiosyncrasy found in the new-style provisional designations, no longer exists in this packed-notation system, as the second letter is now listed after the subscript number, or its equivalent 2-digit code. For an introduction on provisional minor planet designations in the "un-packed" form, see § New-style provisional designation.
The system of packed provisional minor planet designations:
2014is written as
K14(see tables below)
00is used when there is no following subscript,
99is used for subscript 99,
A0is used for subscript 100, and
A1is used for 101)
Contrary to the new-style system, the letter "i" is used in the packed form both for the year and the numeric suffix. The compacting system provides upper and lowercase letters to encode up to 619 "cycles". This means that 15,500 designations ( = 619×25 + 25) within a half-month can be packed, which is a few times more than the designations assigned monthly in recent years.
J95. As it has no subscript number,
00is used as placeholder instead, and directly placed after the half-month letter "X".
J95. Subscript number "1" is padded to
01to maintain the length of 7 characters, and placed after the first letter.
K16. The subscript number "156" exceeds 2 digits and is converted to
F6, (see table below)
K07. The subscript number "418" exceeds 2 digits and is converted to
f8, (see table below)
|Compacting first two digits of year|
|Compacting 3-digit subscript numbers|
Note that the survey designations are distinguished from provisional designations by having the letter
S in the third character, which contains a decimal digit in provisional designations and permanent numbers.
A packed form for permanent designations also exists (these are numbered minor planets, with or without a name). In this case, only the designation's number is used and converted to a 5 character string. The rest of the permanent designation is ignored. Minor planet numbers below 100,000 are simply zero-padded to 5 digits from the left side. For minor planet above 100,000, a single letter (A–Z and a–z) is used, similar as for the provisional subscript number (also see table above):
Acovers the number range 100,000–109,999
Bcovers the number range 110,000–119,999
acovers the number range 360,000–369,999
zcovers the number range 610,000–619,999
00001encodes 1 Ceres
99999encodes (99999) 1981 FP
A0000encodes 100000 Astronautica, (as
A9999encodes (109999) 2001 SZ62 (as
B0000encodes (110000) 2001 SM63 (as
G3693encodes 163693 Atira (as
Y2843encodes 342843 Davidbowie (as
g0356encodes 420356 Praamzius (as
Numbers above 619999 will be indicated using a tilde, "~", as the first character. The subsequent 4 characters will all be base-62 (0-9, then A-Z if between 10 and 35 inclusive, then a-z if between 36 and 61 inclusive) and used to store the target number MINUS 620,000.
(620000) is represented as ~0000 (i.e. 620,000 - 620,000 = 0 = 0*62^3 + 0*62^2 + 0*62^1 + 0*62^0). (620061) is represented as ~000z (i.e. 620,061 - 620,000 = 61 = 0*62^3 + 0*62^2 + 0*62^1 + 61*62^0). (3140113) is represented as ~AZaz (i.e. 3140113 - 620,000 = 2520113 = 10*62^3 + 35*62^2 + 36*62^1 + 61*62^0). (15396335) is represented as ~zzzz (i.e. 15396335 - 620,000 = 14776335 = 61*62^3 + 61*62^2 + 61*62^1 + 61*62^0) 
The current total of numbered minor planets can be found at MPC's statistics page, in column "numbered" of section "Orbits And Names".