Cover of The Little Prince’s first edition. 1943
You may have heard of The Little Prince. It is a literary work by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that tells the story of a boy who inhabits an asteroid and travels the universe to meet other planets and their inhabitants.
At first glance it may look like something only for children, but this work is also marked by its high philosophical and poetic content. The Little Prince is the third most translated book and one of the best-selling books in the world, with adaptations for cinema, theater and musical shows.
Published in 1943, it was one of the first works of literature to include asteroids as a setting for adventures. We can therefore compare The Little Prince’s depiction of asteroids with our reality, and suggest a series of activities to teach and entertain children and young people.
Image of asteroid Toutatis taken by the Chinese mission Chang’e 2. This asteroid received the provisional designation 1934 CT because it was first observed in 1934. After years considered lost, it received the new provisional designation 1989 BC after being located again at the end of 1980s. Finally, it received the official designation 4179 Toutatis. Credit: CNSA
At the beginning of the story, when the narrator tries to find out where the prince came from, he explains how the asteroids are named, citing “asteroid 3251” as an example. In reality too, numbers are used when asteroids are discovered. They are given provisional designations consisting of the year of discovery and an alphanumeric code indicating the half month of discovery and the sequence within it. Let’s take as an example the object 2001 FO32, the largest asteroid that passed close to Earth this year. Its discovery was confirmed on 23 March 2001, so its designation begins with 2001 followed by the letter F, which indicates the objects discovered in the second half of March. When it was discovered, hundreds of other objects had been discovered in the same period, causing the entire sequence of 25 letters (the letter I is not used) to be used 32 times! This means that it was the 789th asteroid discovered in the second half of March of that year. The asteroids await further observations for their orbits to be calculated and then receive a definitive designation, consisting of a sequential discovery number and a name. This name can be proposed by the discoverer following the guidelines of the International Astronomical Union.
In the book, the narrator speculates that the prince came from an asteroid called B612. The inspiration for this name came from the author’s experience of working as an airmail pilot and flying a plane that had the serial number “A-612”. In the story, B612 was seen once through the telescope in 1909 by a Turkish astronomer. In reality, 19 asteroids were discovered in 1909.
Melitta was the first, discovered on 16 January by the British astronomer Philibert Melotte at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Bella was the last, discovered on 7 November by the American Joel Metcalf, astronomer and Harvard Observatory collaborator. Although none of the astronomers who discovered asteroids that year were Turkish. An asteroid discovered in 1937 that was officially designated as Ankara, a tribute to the capital of Turkey.
None of these asteroids discovered in 1909 were named B612, but there is an asteroid discovered in 1993 that received the name Bésixdouze, which is the French name for “B six twelve”, in tribute to The Little Prince. And this was not the only one: an asteroid discovered in 1975 was named Saint-Exupéry, after the story’s author, and in 2003 one of the moons of asteroid Eugenia was named Petit-Prince.
The foundation created in 2002 that co-sponsors Asteroid Day was also named after the little prince’s home asteroid.
In the book, asteroid B612 has three volcanoes, one of which is extinct. The real existence of volcanoes on asteroids began to come to light in 2018, thanks to an analysis of images and data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which launched in 2007. The mission identified ‘cryovolcanoes’ in Ceres, the largest asteroid. These volcanoes, instead of lava, expel ice, salts and other materials. Dawn also identified traces of volcanic activity in Vesta, which occurred soon after its original formation.
Ahuna Mons, located on the surface of asteroid Ceres, is a possible cryovolcano. Credit: NASA/DAWN
An exciting hypothesis is that the metallic asteroid Psyche may have had volcanoes expelling molten iron in the past. A mission to this asteroid is scheduled for 2022 and we will know if this is true.
Other asteroids where the little prince passes and interacts with its inhabitants are mentioned only as numbers, ranging from 325 to 330. Following asteroids discovered in real life, the celestial bodies that received these numbers were: (325) Heidelberga, (326) Tamara, (327) Columbia, (328) Gudrun, (329) Svea and (330) Adalberta, all discovered by European astronomers within an 18-year period. Unlike in the book, they are not inhabited by kings, vain men, drunks or businessmen. They possess only rocks and metals, being divided into the three main classes of asteroids.
A very interesting part of the story is the amount of sunsets that the prince can watch from his asteroid, simply by moving his chair to contemplate them. This is close to the truth because most asteroids have rotation periods ranging from 1 to 20 hours. Vesta, for example, has a rotation period of just over 5 hours. Other very small asteroids can have rotation periods of just a few minutes or seconds! Trying to faithfully reproduce the scene of the Little Prince, however, would be challenging. One of the problems would be moving the chair in the extremely small gravity.
Radar image of NEO 1998 OR2 taken in April 2020. Its rotation is approximately 4 hours. Credit: Arecibo Observatory/NASA/NSF
At Asteroid Day we have always valued events for children and young people. We have found that children enjoy workshops, where they can transform what they have learned about asteroids into art and use their imagination about what can still be found in these celestial bodies.
Panel created to exhibit drawings made by children in a school in Brazil during Asteroid Day.
So why not introduce the children of your audience to The Little Prince? It can be a storytelling session or an adaptation for a play. This introduction will be an important step for other activities according to age group.
For children between the ages of 5 and 7, create a drawing workshop where they can imagine what could be on an asteroid. Saint-Exupéry was inspired by the country where his wife was born to draw the asteroid landscape the prince lived in. With children in this age group, value their imagination and leave them free to draw whatever they want: flowers, kings, monsters, aliens …
Activity of asteroid drawings introducing scientific concepts after reading Astronomy books. Asteroid Day Brazil 2018.
With older children (8 to 10 years old) insert some simple scientific concepts. For example, remind them that asteroids have an irregular shape (like potatoes), and rotate like planets producing days and nights. Also ask them to name their asteroid, inspired by some fun or important episode in their lives or inventing a circumstance in which it was discovered.
With teenagers, show them the asteroid Vesta atlas developed by the Dawn mission. It contains details of its surface and can be the setting for great adventures. Discuss with them an imaginary mission to Vesta. Show them on the atlas the regions that have already been discovered and which ones still need to be explored. Make this as real as possible, like a space agency deciding the next mission. A role-playing game can be adapted to take place in Vesta, where participants can take on characters such as astronauts or scientists, exploring the asteroid surface.
An atlas of Vesta’s surface, as derived from NASA’s Dawn mission. This asteroid can be the setting for fascinating stories.
All of these activities can be easily adapted to virtual formats and stimulated through the organization of contests in which fiction and reality can be explored or mixed to spark the creativity of the participants. Your protagonists could be great explorers and scientists in real life. Remember that literature can be the basis for launching rockets in which imagination is the fuel to reach asteroids and indeed anywhere in the Universe. Have fun and have good events!