Asteroid Subject Of Future NASA Mission Gets New Name
May 2, 2013

North Carolina Student Names Asteroid Target Of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Mission

John P. Millis, Ph.D. for — Your Universe Online

NASA's Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft, scheduled to be launched in 2016, will touch down on an asteroid in 2018. Then, after collecting samples from the surface, the probe will rocket back to Earth, returning its find to be studied by terrestrial scientists by 2023.

But project leaders noticed that the asteroid in question, asteroid (101955) 1999 RQ36, had a quite unappealing name. So NASA launched a contest to let one lucky person chose a new name.

The selection committee chose Bennu, submitted by nine-year-old Michael Puzio, a third grader from North Carolina. Michael suggested the name because he imagined the Touch-and-Go Sample Mechanism (TAGSAM) arm and solar panels on OSIRIS-REx look like the neck and wings in drawings of Bennu, which Egyptians usually depicted as a gray heron.

"Bennu struck a chord with many of us right away," said Bruce Betts, director of projects for the Planetary Society and a contest judge. "While there were many great entries, the similarity between the image of the heron and the TAGSAM arm of OSIRIS-REx was a clever choice. The parallel with asteroids as both bringers of life and as destructive forces in the solar system also created a great opportunity to teach."

"There were many excellent entries that would be fitting names and provide us an opportunity to educate the world about the exciting nature of our mission," said Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona in Tucson, a contest judge and the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission. "The information about the composition of Bennu and the nature of its orbit will enable us to explore our past and better understand our future."

"The samples of Bennu returned by OSIRIS-REx will allow scientists to peer into the origin of the solar system and gain insights into the origin of life," said Jason Dworkin, an OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

When he learned he had won the contest, Puzio said, "It's great! I'm the first kid I know that named part of the solar system!"