Astronomer David Balam typically works at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich, but discovered the minor planet Tsawout via a telescope in Hawaii. (Contributed)

Minor planet named for Tsawout First Nation

During his five decades looking through a telescope, David Balam has discovered his fair share of objects in the vast expanse of space. A unique perk of the job, he said, is naming these newfound objects, and now, one of the minor planets is named for the Tsawout First Nation on the Saanich Peninsula.

Balam said of the objects he has named, some have personal connections, and this is no different. He is related to members of Tsawout through his great aunt, and said his family homesteaded on Stewart Island in the 1850s. When he was thinking of a name, continuity and endurance was on his mind.

“Here are these people who have gone through hundreds of years and they’ve managed to maintain their continuity and culture, and they’ve been through a lot,” said Balam, citing European colonization, famines, and floods.

“When you think about it, it’s immortality in a way,” said Balam.

He found the planet using the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope located on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, operated from the basement of his Central Saanich home. This planet is the about two kilometres in diameter, so “it’s a pretty good size chunk of rock,” about the size of Mt. Douglas. It is a mid-main belt asteroid, made of carbonaceous rock, in a nice safe orbit between Mars and Jupiter among millions of others.

Balam said it took about seven years to confirm the accuracy of its orbit and get the name approved. One challenge was observing it over several nights, taking precise positional measurements before it is obscured first by the moon and then the sun. Once its orbit is known, it becomes permanently numbered, and the discoverer may propose a name to the International Astronomical Union, which is approved or denied by committee.

“I just see it as a perk of the game,” said Balam.

The Canadian Astronomical Society’s annual meeting was coming up, and Balam thought it a good occasion to present a plaque to Chief Harvey Underwood, who was surprised but honoured when Balam told him his plan. At the time, said Underwood, members of the Horn and Jack families (Balam’s relations) happened to be in the room. At a plaque presentation at the Victoria Conference Centre, Underwood spoke at UVic and spoke about the Creator and how the Tsawout were “placed in the perfect spot.”

“Our Creator’s wisdom and vision could be found within our own galaxy, eh?”

Underwood said he spoke about the 13 Saanich Moons, which dictated daily life for the WSANEC people, including what foods were harvested. This time of year is called CENTEKI, when the sockeye return. It was not the only presence Tsawout had at the conference. Nick Claxton, a UVic assistant teaching professor, is also from Tsawout and led a workshop on integrating the Saanich Moons curriculum to the provincial elementary and middle school curriculum. Claxton said the province has committed to including more Indigenous knowledge into the B.C. curriculum, and the conference was a way of introducing these concepts to other teachers.

Underwood has not yet seen the planet himself through a telescope, but has seen a photo published by Balam.

“One thing we all have in common is we all wish upon a star, right? It’s kind of neat to have our own little planet out there, circling around in the universe,” said Underwood.

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