WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 (Xinhua) -- Students worldwide now have an opportunity to name an asteroid from which an upcoming NASA mission will bring back the first samples to Earth, the U.S. space agency NASA announced on Tuesday.
Scheduled for launch in 2016, the mission is called the Origins- Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx). Samples returned from the primitive surface of the near-Earth asteroid, currently called (101955) 1999 RQ36, could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.
NASA also is planning a crewed mission to an asteroid by 2025. A closer scientific study of asteroids will provide context and help inform such a mission.
"Because the samples returned by the mission will be available for study for future generations, it is possible the person who names the asteroid will grow up to study the regolith we return to Earth," said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
The naming competition is open to students under age 18 from anywhere in the world. Each contestant can submit one name, up to 16 characters long. Entries must include a short explanation and rationale for the name. Submissions must be made by an adult on behalf of the student. The contest deadline is Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012.
The contest is a partnership with the Planetary Society, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory and the University of Arizona. A panel will review proposed asteroid names. First prize will be awarded to the student who recommends a name that is approved by the International Astronomical Union Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature.
"Our mission will be focused on this asteroid for more than a decade," said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission at the University of Arizona. "We look forward to having a name that is easier to say than (101955) 1999 RQ36."
Discovered in 1999, the asteroid has an average diameter of approximately one-third of a mile (500 meters). It received its designation of (101955) 1999 RQ36 from the Minor Planet Center, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The center assigns an initial alphanumeric designation to any newly- discovered asteroid once certain criteria are met to determine its orbit.