In 2016, NASA are planning to launch the OSIRIS-REx mission which will visit a near-Earth asteroid, collect samples, and bring them back to Earth. Unfortunately for mission publicists, the asteroid has the unsexy name of (101955) 1999 RQ36, which is a bit of a mouthful. To fix this, they are running a competition for students and learners to give the asteroid a proper name. Open to anybody under the age of eighteen, anywhere in the world, entrants must submit their suggestion for a name (up to 16 characters long), along with an explanation of why it would be a good name and what it means. The deadline is 2 December, 2012. Since astronomical names can only be assigned by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) after a vote by its members, they will be judging the competition and choosing the winner.
Updated: The winner of the competition was 9-year old Mike Puzio, who suggested the name “Bennu”. Bennu is an ancient egyptian god, usually depicted as a grey heron. Mike felt that the sample arm and solar panels of OSIRIS-REx reminded him of traditional illustrations of Bennu.
OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer – possibly the most awkward backronym I’ve ever seen) will launch in 2016, rendezvous at (101955) 1999 RQ36 from 2019 to 2020, and return home in 2023. It’s goal is to study the asteroid, bring home samples of the loose gravel and dirt on the surface and measure the Yarkovsky effect. This last item refers to the ability of emitted heat energy to exert a force on an object, and is important as one possible method to deflect an asteroid from a collision course with Earth.
(101955) 1999 RQ36 is a carbonaceous asteroid, similar to most of the meteoroids which fall on Earth every day. Unlike the meteoroids, it is quite large with a diameter of about 500 meters. It is composed of the original primordial material leftover from the creation of the Solar System, which is mostly dust and rock but also rich in volatile chemicals and organic compunds, such as tar, alcohol and even water. The asteroid has a thick layer of regolith (loose material, mostly fine gravel) which makes it easy to collect a sample — a spacecraft can simply scoop it up without having to drill or blast.
To enter the competition, click here to access the rules and entry form: http://www.planetary.org/get-involved/contests/osirisrex/enter.html