Crossroads Asia

Welcome to Planet Tajikistan

Where the planet isn’t completely real and the press releases don’t matter.

Welcome to Planet Tajikistan
Credit: Flickr/tprentice

By far the most amusing story out of Central Asia this week was news that a small planet had been named Tajikistan in honor of the contributions of Tajik scientists to the study of astrophysics. Too bad the story isn’t true and, besides being ridiculous, again exposes the poor state of Tajikistan’s press.

Khovar, the state press agency, first carried the story which was then elaborated on (and rightfully questioned) by Eurasianet, a series of other Central Asian-focused news sites, and the Washington Post.

According to Eurasianet’s report, the “International Astrophysicists Union” named a minor planet Tajikistan and President Emomali Rahmon received a certificate saying so. The planet reportedly orbits the sun once every five years and is between Mars and Jupiter, exactly “250 million kilometers from earth and 436 million kilometers from the sun.”

“There are some unexplained aspects to this story, however,” Eurasianet wrote:

For instance, the International Astrophysicists Union, if it indeed exists, appears to have no online presence. And were it a real organization, it would be rather odd for it to be getting into the business of naming planets, since that might be considered more strictly the domain of astronomers. As it happens, there is something called the International Astronomical Union, but its website is unrevealing about any recent planetary discoveries related to Tajikistan.

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The International Astronomical Union (IAU)’s mission is “ to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects through international cooperation” and counts among its responsibilities providing definitions and “unambiguous astronomical nomenclature.” The IAU “serves as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and surface features on them.”

Gareth Williams, associate director of the (real) IAU’s Minor Planet Center was straightforward in an email to The Diplomat, writing “there is no minor planet named ‘Tajikistan.’” But, as the Post pointed out, there is an asteroid named “Tadjikistan.” Asteroids are also sometimes called minor planets or small bodies and our solar system has a belt of asteroids that orbit the Sun between Mars and Jupiter (between 329 million and 478 million kilometers from the Sun).

According to the small-body database provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory–a research and development center and NASA field center managed by the California Institute of Technology–Tadjikistan was discovered by Tamara Smirnova, a Russian astronomer, on April 27, 1970 from the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory in Nauchnyj, near Bakhchysarai, Crimea. It is unclear when the object picked up the name Tadjikistan, though the Post links to a list of asteroids from 2002 with that name listed. Also designated as 1970 HA, Tadjikistan has an orbital period of 2001 days. Meaning it takes about 5.47 years to circle the Sun.

Put simply: Tajikistan does have a small planet named after it, but virtually everything else in Khovar’s story is false. The asteroid is not a recent discovery nor its naming a recent event. It also isn’t particularly remarkable. Scientists estimate that there are more than 750,000 asteroids larger than 1 kilometer in diameter and millions of smaller ones in the asteroid belt. A sample of names that might make Tajikistan feel a little less special: (2671) Abkhazia, (5102) Benfranklin, (6110) Kazak, (2178) Kazakhstania, (1351) Uzbekistania, (2584) Turkmenia, (2566) Kirghizia, (6000) United Nations, (916) America, and a personal favorite: (14917) Taco.

While illustrating Tajikistan’s eccentricity–and as Eurasianet notes, perhaps the country’s need for a domestic morale-boosting accolade–the (false) report also lays bare the atrophy of the Tajik press. In July the Tajik government ordered all departments to release information first through Khovar; news that is all-too-real. The order is expected to make it more difficult for Tajikistan’s limited number of independent news outlets to get comments from their few government sources. Essentially all information about the government is to be funneled through a state mouthpiece. This is, to say the least, problematic, but just another in a litany of difficulties journalists face in the country. Recently, an independent Tajik journalist was sentenced to two years in jail for allegedly forging an ID when he was six (they claim his father obtained falsified birth records with which he obtained a passport 17 years before being charged), an absurd charge and a terrifying message: Only the government is allowed to fudge birthdates on official forms.