Asteroid! Duck!

This not a warning of an impending asteroid impact, nor is it confusion about the nature of comet 67P—this is a tale about an asteroid and a duck.

But not any old duck, rather one particular auld Pekin duck: the absurdly wealthy and characteristically cranky adventure capitalist Scrooge McDuck, the character created by Carl Barks for Disney back in 1947.

Uncle to Donald, and unca to grandnephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, Scrooge McDuck is perhaps the most entertaining (and exasperating) of all of the Disney characters. And with bungling relatives like his, who can blame him for being hot under his frock coat collar most of the time?

Scrooge’s first serious foray into business was mining, when in 1883 he started prospecting for copper and silver, but by the end of the decade his sights were set on gold. And it’s that particular metal, whether being mined or banked, that has been one of main drivers of Scrooge’s adventures and misadventures ever since—both on and off the planet.

In what has been a lifelong journey of haphazard rock-hopping, Scrooge has ploughed his squijillions of dollars into a multitude of ventures to explore asteroids, meteoroids, moons and man-made islands in the sky, all with varying success.

While real-life asteroid mining companies have set their focus closer to home, hatching plans to commercialise the near-Earth environment, Scrooge continues to be much less cautious in his pursuit of exploiting planetary resources. While still prospecting on and near Earth, he has also ventured out to the Moon, Mars, the main belt and Jupiter, marvelling at the bounteous bodies of gold, iron, diamond and more mysterious minerals he finds along the way. There’s a list of some of these adventures at the end of this article.

In Uncle Scrooge and the Race to the Asteroid (original title Zio Paperone e La Corsa all’Asteroide), Scrooge is in competition with rival billionaire prospectors to identify the most valuable asteroids in the asteroid belt, but he is the only one to figure out how to deflect them into lunar orbit for mining. It was published in the Italian Disney digest, Topolino, in 2020 (#3352).

Clearly, as a citizen of the fictional city of Duckburg in the fictional US state of Calisota, Scrooge is seeking to take advantage of the SPACE Act of 2015, which legally allows US citizens to engage in the exploitation of space resources. In particular, it entitles him “to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.” That’s in section §51303 Asteroid resource and space resource rights.

What’s not clear is how moving an asteroid into lunar orbit for mining fits into the legal framework—does “transport” of the asteroid resource relate to resources extracted from the asteroid, or to the entire asteroid itself? You can read the entire SPACE Act on the US Government Information website. Or for more light reading about Space Treaties and the exploration and use of space resources, visit the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs website. The Luxembourg Space Agency website may also be of interest.

Many of Scrooge’s asteroid adventures have seen him lose vast sums of money when things haven’t gone entirely to plan, but he has so much wealth that it never makes much of a dent in his famous Money Bin, the giant vault in which he has stored his fantastic fortune since 1950.

But hunting out the most suitable rock where he can safely stash his vast hoard of hard-earned cash has often been the main motivation for his asteroid pursuits.

“Island in the Sky” (Uncle Scrooge #29, March 1960) by Carl Barks (credit: Disney)

Scrooge started out with just one dime, earned in 1877 as pocket money from shining shoes (see The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, in Uncle Scrooge #285, April 1994). But his fortune soon grew to incomprehensible levels.

In the 1950 story The Pixilated Parrot (in Donald Duck #282), Scrooge is seen counting more than nine billion trillion dollars in two thousand dollar bills alone.

In 1962, when his fortune is taking one of many temporary tumbles, Scrooge works out that even if he lost a billion dollars a minute, it would take 600 years for all his cash to run out (see Much Luck McDuck in Uncle Scrooge #38). This suggests a fortune of $315 quadrillion.

In 2013, the last time Forbes released its Fictional 15 rich list, Scrooge was at the top with a more conservative estimate of $65.4 billion.

Whatever the figure, let’s just say Scrooge is astronomically rich, and a not insignificant proportion of his wealth has been ploughed into finding the safest place to hide it.

A devious duck

As a child, I was intrigued by the entrepreneurial duck in his Victorian frock coat and spats, but the extent of his asteroid explorations passed me by once my attention was diverted to Pluto.

Then one day in early 2021, an Italian astronomer re-introduced me to Scrooge McDuck, and a story that he had read as a boy in the Italian comic Topolino. That story was Zio Paperone e la Colonie Spaziali, which translates as Uncle Scrooge and the Space Colonies (Topolino, #1720, 1988).

For those unaware, Topolino, the Italian Disney digest, has been around since 1935. The word “Topolino” translates as little mouse, the Italian name for Mickey Mouse. In the Topolino stories, Uncle Scrooge is known as Zio Paperone and his bumbling nephew Donald is Paperino, while Huey, Dewey and Louie are known semi-onomatopoeically as Qui, Quo and Qua.

A number of Scrooge’s asteroid adventures have been reissued over the years, either in the same language or translated into others, or rolled into another story—but not all of them. Zio Paperone e la Colonie Spaziali is one story that appears never to have been translated and will largely have escaped English-speaking orbits.

In the story, which was written by Giorgio Pezzin and drawn by Roberto Marini, Scrooge dupes the crew of his privately-owned space station into travelling with him to the asteroid belt by pretending to be stranded after a shuttle mishap prevents them from returning to Earth.

Unfortunately, Scrooge’s crew is a band of unruly scientists and engineers who are more concerned with workers’ rights than exploring the final frontier. Scrooge even recalls how a mission to Mars failed because some were more concerned with the deal-breaking colour of their spacesuits than the ground-breaking colonisation of the red planet. At times I wondered whether they might all benefit from being packed off for a very long session of CBT with Scrooge’s brother-in-law Professor Ludwig Von Drake.

Eventually, the fractious crew come round to the idea that since they can’t go home, they might as well aim for the asteroids, and off they go with Scrooge to help realise his dream of terraforming a far-off field of “unlovely rocks heaps”, as he calls them. Once Scrooge has mined enough minerals to trade—and solved the issue of cultivating space food—he plans to open it all up to space tourists.

“Zio Paperone e la Colonie Spaziali” (Topolino #1720, Nov 1988), written by Giorgio Pezzin, drawn by Roberto Marini (credit: Disney Italia).

A universal translator

Once I had opened up my copy of the Italian comic, the reality of the situation struck me. Peccato che non parlassi abbastanza italiano per capire il fumetto!

Huey, Dewey and Louie might be inclined to consult Chapter 3 of their trusty Junior Woodchucks’ Guide Book, flicking to page 78 and scrolling down to “Key to Foreign Lingoes” (see Island in the Sky in Uncle Scrooge, #29, 1960). But Scrooge might approach the problem from a more technological angle. He might be inclined to invest a few mindboggillion dollars in developing a multilingual translator device. Perhaps a Universal Neuralnet Character-recognition Lingua-code Emulator—or UNCLE for short.**

I’m not sure how many zeros there are in a mindboggillion dollars but it’s less than a googol.

Oh…okay, Google…

What followed saw me type all 40 pages of Topolino into Google’s own giant Word Bin (also known as Google Translate) and watch as the story in the speech bubbles revealed itself word by word.

In reality, the translation revealed itself sentence by sentence, since that’s how Google’s neural machine translation engine has worked since the end of 2016—it makes the translation read less like text produced by a robot and more like something you would hear with someone speaking.

Not surprisingly, Google Translate struggled to make sense of some of the more fantabulous Heath-Robinson-type contraptions on board Scrooge’s revolutionary, revolving space station. While the choice of gadgets were informed by the story’s writer having studied engineering at university, they were not supposed to be taken too seriously.

The asteropirullometro, the spettrofotopirullimetro, the elettrotermotelegrattugiatore and the fantabirillitro. It’s a miscellany of machines and a jumble of jargon, the playful aspects of which get lost in translation. Astrometers, spectrometers, electrothermal probes and rock smashers intended to measure, analyse, split and/or diffract radiation and/or to mix, analyse, shred, scrape, dig and/or bust up rocks, severally or simultaneously.

Part of the problem is there’s no equivalent word in English for the pirullo or pirulli part of these gadgets, which parodies the pirulí, a swirling conical ‘multi-spectral’ lollipop that was big in Central and South America in the eighties. It’s also the nickname of the giant Torrespaña TV tower in Madrid, Spain. Take at look at El Pirulí and pirulí and you’ll get a sense of the part that a pirullimetro plays in the science on board Scrooge’s space station and his hunt for the perfect asteroid. The bottom line is, just assume an array of thingamajigs that split things apart and mix things up in a semi-scientific but ultimately absurd way—and that are not always put to use by the chief engineer for the intended purpose.

Scrooge believes that the costs involved in developing what he considers to be a bunch of hugely expensive and unnecessary instruments are what have stifled every initiative he has ever had for what could become a major space business venture. No wonder he is not going to let his current idea be just another one that got away.

All the twists and turns in Zio Paperone e la Colonie Spaziali result in an exasperating tale that shows the scale of Scrooge’s single-minded focus on achieving his ambitious plan regardless of cost or consequence either to himself or his crew. He knows he can’t turn all the dirt into dollars without everyone on board his space station being onboard with his plans, therefore sabotaging the crew’s ability to get home and marooning them all in space seems like a perfectly reasonable way to go.

An asteroid named Money Bin

Scrooge may well be a bit of an old devil of a duck, but considering his extraordinarily long history of asteroid exploration, I was surprised to find that no asteroid has been named in his honour. This seems like a bit of an oversight considering there’s a rock named after his nephew and another named after his creator.

Asteroid 2730 Barks (1981 QH) is a 16 km diameter main belt asteroid named after Carl Barks. Classified as a C-type asteroid, it may be relatively dark (or not, since its geometric albedo has been measured from as low as 0.16 to as much as 0.42, depending on the survey). It takes about 4.5 years to orbit the Sun and was first spotted in 1935, although not officially discovered until re-observed by American astronomer Edward Bowell in 1981. It was named after Scrooge’s creator in 1983 at the suggestion of an astronomer at Cornell.

Asteroid 12410 Donald Duck (1995 SM3) is a 5 km diameter main belt asteroid of a type not yet published, but it’s dark, with a geometric albedo of less than 0.01. It takes just under 4 years to orbit the Sun and was discovered on 26 September 1995 by Piero Sicoli and Pierangelo Ghezzi at the Sormano Observatory in Como, Italy and named after Scrooge’s nephew in 2010. I want to believe that they were once Topolino readers.

Orbital positions of asteroid 2730 Barks and asteroid 12410 Donald Duck on 14 September 2022.
Orbital position of asteroids 2730 Barks and 12410 Donald Duck on 14 September 2022 (JPL Small Body Database)

Not only is there no asteroid named in honour of Scrooge McDuck, there isn’t even an asteroid named Money Bin. Considering the billions of dollars being ploughed into space missions by the likes of NASA, ESA, JAXA and others, perhaps naming a potentially hugely valuable, resource-packed space rock after a giant fictional safe stacked with cash is not that crazy an idea.

Scrooge’s giant Money Bin has been launched into space countless times, either intentionally or by accident, but mostly to hide it away from those intent of extracting the multiplujillion dollar fortune inside.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) states on its website that the naming of celestial bodies has long been a controversial subject, which I suppose means that attempting to get an asteroid named after an inanimate object like a cash-filled vault, rather than a person, their pet, or another fictitious duck, may present a bit of a stumbling block.

The IAU also states that the purpose of the nomenclature is to provide simple, clear and unambiguous names which should be 16 characters or less in length, pronounceable, non-offensive, not too similar to an existing name…and preferably one word.

Okay then…MoneyBin.

Attack of the Hideous Space Varmints (1997) - money leaking from the Money Bin anchored to an asteroid in a ring around the asteroid
“Scrooge McDuck and the Attack of the Hideous Space-Varmints” (1997) by Don Rosa (in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, #614-616) (credit: Disney)

Perhaps the only downside to an asteroid named MoneyBin is that it makes it an easy target for those villainous Beagle Boys to find. But as Scrooge tells Donald in Island in the Sky (Uncle Scrooge #29, 1960), “…when the money’s all here, I’ll have tractor rockets tow this unlovely rock heap far off and set it going in a new orbit.” Or as we saw in Uncle Scrooge’s Money Rocket (Topolino #230-232, 1960), Scrooge could always hide the map.

Hatching a plan

To get an asteroid named after someone or something, the IAU encourage people to go out and discover their own. I’m not in a position to do that. But I can suggest a name to the IAU’s Working Group on Small Bodies Nomenclature (WGSBN), who will determine whether the suggestion is appropriate, and the members of the Working Group might then vote on it.

Of the one and a quarter million asteroids that have so far been discovered (1,232,994 at the time of writing), only half of them have received an official number designation. And of those, only 23,296 have been given an official name.

If the WGSBN approves a proposed name, it will be assigned to an asteroid that has received an official number designation. Let me reword that…it may be assigned to an asteroid, since there’s no guarantee the name will be used. And as a non-discoverer, I can only suggest a name, not a specific asteroid to be named—the WGSBN selects the asteroid.

So you see, the chances of me, Joe Public, getting an asteroid named after Scrooge McDuck or even his Money Bin are slim; slimmer than the chances of a rock from the sky falling on my head (although that did once happen—a very small pebble—which may well explain a lot).

Here’s the procedure for naming asteroids:

An astronomer observes an asteroid, or perhaps rediscovers a lost one. Once the object has been observed on two consecutive nights, they send the details to the IAU’s Minor Planet Centre and the object receives a provisional designation that denotes when it was discovered.

Take, as an example, the asteroid now known as 12410 Donald Duck, which received the provisional designation 1995 SM3 when it was discovered. It was, in fact, the 87th object to be discovered between 16–30 September 1995. But how on earth can we tell that by looking at that short string of numbers and letters?

A provisional designation shows the year of discovery, followed by two letters of the alphabet, and sometimes one or more additional subscript digits attached to the second letter, like 1995 SM3. After the year, the first letter denotes the half-month in which the object was discovered (in the given example, S spans 16–30 September). The second letter denotes the order in which the object was discovered in that half-month (here it’s M). But since there are only A to Z letters available, the subscript denotes how many times the alphabet has been repeated. So if it were a busy half-month and the discoveries plentiful, A to Z may need to be cycled through multiple times. M is the 12th letter in this naming alphabet (ignoring the I, which is omitted to avoid confusion with the number 1) and M3 is the 12th letter in the fourth cycle. Add that up and we have 25+25+25+12 = 87, indicating that 1995 SM3 was the 87th object to be discovered between 16–30 September 1995. You can read more about the current (and old style) provisional designation format here.

When enough observations have been made to calculate the orbit precisely, the object is given a permanent number designation, the next number in a sequential list. At the time of writing, numbers had been assigned up to 619,150.

The permanent designation assigned to asteroid 1995 SM3 was number 12410, after which the object became known as 12410 (1995 SM3). The discoverer—meaning who first calculates the precise orbit—then has a 10-year privilege period in which to name it. Asteroid 12410 (1995 SM3) was named ‘Donald Duck’ in 2010 by the two Italian astronomers who discovered it and is now officially known as 12410 Donald Duck.

After a discoverer’s 10-year privilege period to name an asteroid expires, it’s not so much that naming the asteroid they discovered is up for grabs, but rather up to the WGSBN.


But back to Scrooge McDuck and his Money Bin.

I have submitted both of these names to the WGSBN, with the following citations (and citations must be limited to 360 characters):

Scrooge McDuck: “Named after the famous character of Walt Disney’s cartoons, an eccentric adventure capitalist whose passion for rock-hopping has seen him plough huge sums of money into asteroid exploration, mining and space tourism, with varying success—although hunting out a suitable rock where he can safely store his vast hoard of cash is a major motivation.”

MoneyBin: “Named after the giant safe in which the Walt Disney cartoon character Scrooge McDuck stores his money. The safe has been launched into space countless times, sometimes by accident, but mostly to hide it away from those intent of extracting the fortune inside. Orbiting in the outer main belt, this goldmine is well out of reach of the villainous Beagle Boys.”

Although I’m not permitted to suggest an asteroid, I have asked the WGSBN to consider the following two objects:

Asteroid 500000 (2011 PM6), a main belt asteroid discovered by Pan-STARRS 1 at the Haleakalā Observatory. While the large round number evokes the idea of money, its unremarkable near-circular orbit in the outer asteroid belt keeps it far from Earth, where it resides relatively incognito. The perfect place to conceal a Money Bin.

An asteroid for Scrooge McDuck would be in a highly eccentric orbit, since the old duck himself is the embodiment of eccentricity. Asteroid 363135 (2001 QQ199) is a distant object in an eccentric—and highly inclined—orbit that takes it from the outer belt to beyond the orbit of Jupiter. It was discovered by the NEAT survey at Palomar…and its provisional designation is, well, Quack Quack.

We’ll see what happens.

Ad nomini asteroide, per aspera.

A selection of Scrooge McDuck’s adventures on asteroids, and elsewhere:

The Forbidium Money Bin — Scrooge’s new money bin is made of impenetrable material and when he loses the only copy of the combination, he has to go to the Moon to hunt for something even harder to open it. He finds a piece of comet nucleus that he thinks might do the trick. First published in Disneyland Birthday Party (#1, Oct 1958), written and illustrated by Carl Barks.

The Twenty-Four Carat Moon — Another moon is discovered on the dark side of the Moon and it’s made of pure gold, fuelling a mad scramble to claim it. But the diminutive ruler of Venus has beat them all to it. First published in Uncle Scrooge (#24, Dec 1958), written and illustrated by Carl Barks.

Island in the Sky — Scrooge decides the best place to stash his money is on an asteroid. Unfortunately, the one he chooses is inhabited and his arrival disrupts the ecosystem, costing Scrooge a fortune to fix it for the alien inhabitants. Published in Uncle Scrooge (#29, Mar 1960), written and illustrated by Carl Barks.

Paperino e il Razzo Interplanetario (Donald Duck and the Interplanetary Raid, aka Uncle Scrooge’s Money Rocket) — Scrooge plans to stash his gold on the Moon but the spaceship gets diverted to Jupiter where metal-eating aliens consume it all. First published in Topolino (#230-232, Mar/Apr 1960). Written by Luciano Bottaro and Carlo Chendi, illustrated by Luciano Bottaro. Official English translation released in 2018 as Uncle Scrooge’s Money Rocket in Disney Masters Vol. 2.

The Loony Lunar Gold Rush — Scrooge joins the race to the Moon to prospect for gold but opens a convenience store instead, making more money by trading off the miners than he would from all the gold. First published in Uncle Scrooge (#49, May 1964), written and illustrated by Carl Barks.

Zio Paperone e l’Asteroide Minerario (Uncle Scrooge and the Mining Asteroid) — A metal asteroid is heading for Earth and Scrooge goes up against an arch rival to be the one who gets to save the world. First published in Topolino (#1093, Nov 1976), written by Giorgio Pezzin, illustrated by Giorgio Cavazzano. The English translation was released in Apr 2013 on comiXology.com.

Zio Paperone e la Colonie Spaziali (Uncle Scrooge and the Space Colonies) — Scrooge dupes the crew of his orbital space station into travelling with him to the asteroid belt to terraform a heap of asteroids. First published in Topolino (#1720, Nov 1988), written by Giorgio Pezzin, illustrated by Roberto Marini.

**Uncle Scrooge and the Attack of the Hideous Space Varmints — Scrooge’s Money Bin is catapulted into space by an alien warp drive, the creators of which commandeer it as their new home, anchoring it to a main belt asteroid. First published in Anders And (1997 #33-#35) as Pengetank på afveje, with the English translation in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories (#614-#616, Jul-Sep 1997), written and illustrated by Don Rosa. (**Note: If ever stuck in translation, the ducks would probably borrow a Universal Translator from the varmints, since they’re good friends now.)

Zio Paperone e la Corsa su Marte (Uncle Scrooge and the Race to Mars) — Scrooge and an arch rival race each other to Mars to establish the first tourist resort. Scrooge gets ahead by hitching a ride within a family of asteroids but a gravity assist triggers a meteor storm on Earth and Mars. First published in Topolino (#2347, Nov 2000), written by Giorgio Pezzin, illustrated by Stefano Intini.

Zio Paperone e l’Asteroide di Diamanti (Uncle Scrooge and the Diamond Asteroid) — An asteroid made of diamond has been spotted in the vicinity of Earth and Scrooge goes head to head with an arch rival to be the first to stake a claim. First published in Topolino (#2928, Jan 2012), written by Carlo Panaro, illustrated by Ettore Gula.

Zio Paperone e La Corsa all’Asteroide (Uncle Scrooge and the Race to the Asteroid) — Scrooge is in competition with rival billionaire prospectors to identify the most valuable asteroids in the asteroid belt, but he is the only one to figure out how to deflect them into lunar orbit for mining. First published in Topolino (#3352, Feb 2020), written by Alessandro Sisti, illustrated by Francesco D’Ippolito.

If you enjoyed that, you might enjoy this:

The Golden Age of Mr Benn
The Hunt for Happer’s Comet
Astro-Mining in the Movies
Time Enough for Writing a Sonnet
The Door into Summer (2021)

Fair Dealing/Fair Use. The four cartoon images shown in this article Asteroid! Duck! were selected to support the commentary about asteroid exploration, an explanation of how an asteroid is named, and the review of a story that appeared in Topolino. All images have been credited. I believe the use constitutes fair dealing/fair use of any copyrighted material, but if the copyright holder should wish an image to be removed, please make contact using the email address below and the image will be removed.