2022. August 17., Wednesday
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A Minor Planet was Named After Katalin Karikó

The asteroid discovered in 2002 by two astronomers linked to the University of Szeged was named after Katalin Karikó, research professor of SZTE and worldwide acclaimed researcher of the mRNA-based medical technology. 14 other ’space rocks’ have been named after well-known Hungarian persons. The 1.5 km diameter ’Karikókatalin’ takes one complete orbit around the Sun in 3.7 years. The University of Szeged is one of the national centres of studying minor planets.

As a respect towards performance and research dedication, the minor planet no.166028 is now named after Katalin Karikó, research professor of the University of Szeged and researcher behind the mRNA-based vaccines used to curb the covid-19 pandemic. According to the article published by csillagaszat.hu, the 1.5 km diameter celestial body was discovered by two astronomers, Krisztián Sárneczky and Zsuzsanna Heiner, who both have connections to the University of Szeged.



The right of the discoverer


“It is an old tradition to name minor planets: it is the right of the discoverer to choose the name of the newly detected astronomical body” – said Krisztián Sárneczky. The ’planet-hunter’ also known as an avid propagator of sciences, has discovered more than 2000 asteroids so far. Sárneczky attended the University of Szeged’s Doctoral School of Physics and received his diploma form the Eötvös Loránd University. He detected his first asteroid with the support of Szeged-based astronomers. Many times he took the first photo of a minor planet along with other scientists – such is the example of no.166028, which he observed together with Zsuzsanna Heiner, SZTE PhD alumna of Physics.

The asteroid observed by the Sárneczky-Heiner duo on 11 January 2002 at the Astronomical Institute’s Observatory on Piszkéstető was also marked in the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) database. The international union connects and unites international astronomers and controls the unified, standard naming of celestial bodies and their subaerial shapes. IAU also calculates the orbit of the asteroids. The Sárneczky-Heiner asteroid got the number 166028 and the ‘2002 AR204’ code which refers to the discovery: the minor planet orbits the inner section of the Main-belt and takes one complete orbit around the Sun in 3.7 years.

The biochemist and the universe

“Katalin Karikó (b. 1955) is a Hungarian biochemist, whose research has been the development of in vitro-transcribed mRNA for protein therapies. Her work includes the scientific research of RNA mediated immune activation, resulting in the co-discovery of the nucleoside modifications that suppress the immunogenicity of RNA.” – Reads IAU’s short appraisal in the WGSBN Bulletin announcing all newly named minor planets. According to the long list, besides the ‘(166028) Karikókatalin = 2002 AR204’ asteroid, 14 other minor planets were named after Hungarian persons.


The topic of the universe and interest towards astronomical studies continuously appears in the career of Katalin Karikó. The discussions regarding the Voyager program essentially frame the research path of the biochemist.


Katalin Karikó enhanced the importance of the personal relationships formed at the university upon her welcoming speech to the freshmen at the opening ceremony of the SZTE centennial year. To prove this she recalled her ‘first encounter’ with Voyager. She had a discussion with her fellow organic chemistry student, János Ludwig about the space probe launched in 1977. Later, they ended up working together in the RNA laboratory of the Szeged Biological Research Centre. “In 2004, when I was trying to figure out how to develop modified RNA, he gave me good advice how to get the building blocks of similar mRNA synthesis – he was the one who helped me to start this work.” – reminisced Karikó about the life-changing results of the ‘interstellar’ discussion.


One of the latest awards Katalin Karikó, often referred to as the ‘mother of mRNA-base vaccines’ was the Benjamin Franklin Medal in the category of life sciences. In the category of physics, the medal was awarded to space scientist Edward C. Stone, head of the NASA Voyager-program to encounter Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The probe continued to forward data after crossing to interstellar space. Katalin Karikó will have the chance to pick up the 45 year-old discussion about the Voyager program with the program’s director in person, at the award ceremony in 2022. The ‘Karikókatalin’ celestial body is a unique title in the list of honours she received.


Szeged Asteroid program

Hungary was considered one of the masters of minor plates from the 1930s. The search programme led by György Kulin at the Svábhegy Observatory was renewed with the cooperation of the University of Szeged and the then called Astrophysical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1997 with the help of the Szeged Asteroid Program. The program aimed at the observation of minor planets.


The number of celestial bodies named after Hungarian persons is closing in on a fivescore. The majority of these minor planets were discovered by astronomers linked to the University of Szeged. As an example, one of the minor planets orbiting between Mars and Jupiter was named ‘(28196) Szeged’ on 27 March 2020.


The names of the 16 Hungarian artists, scientists and athletes who ‘received a minor planet’ was made public in August 2021. Hungarian astronomers, researchers of various fields, one athlete and Frigyes Schulek architect, designer of the Calvinistic Church in Szeged were listed amongst the names.

SZTEinfo – Ilona Újszászi

Article translated by: Zs. P.

Fotó: István Tóth-Sahin, internet

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