Sep. 4, 2012 at 8:12 PM ET
Scientists are giving students the chance to name an asteroid — but not just any asteroid: This one is the target for a NASA mission due for launch in 2016, and has a nasty, non-zero risk of hitting Earth in the 22nd century. So choose the name well, kids: You might be hearing about this one for the next 200 years.
The near-Earth asteroid is currently known as (101955) 1999 RQ36, and under normal circumstances, it'd be up to its discoverers to give it a real name. Instead, astronomers at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, who spotted the space rock in 1999, have partnered with the Planetary Society and the University of Arizona to turn the name selection process into an online contest. Their aim is to generate interest for NASA's $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission, which will send a probe to 1999 RQ36, grab a sample in 2020 and bring it back to Earth by 2023.
The asteroid mission
The sample could shed additional light on several of the mysteries surrounding asteroids: What can their composition tell us about the solar system's formation process? Could they preserve the chemical building blocks of life, and is that how carbon-based chemicals got to Earth in the first place? Do they contain resources that can be mined and exploited? Are there better ways to keep track of the orbits of potentially threatening asteroids?
That last question may not be purely theoretical: Based on what's known so far about 1999 RQ36's orbit, the asteroid has been given a 1-out-of-1,410 chance of colliding with Earth sometime in the latter part of the 22nd century. The riskiest encounter date comes on Sept. 24, 2182. The asteroid is thought to be about a third of a mile wide (500 meters wide), which means a collision would spark a worldwide catastrophe though not necessarily the end of civilization.
There's still a lot of uncertainty about the long-term trajectories of near-Earth asteroids. By tracking 1999 RQ36 precisely, scientists could get a better fix on the subtle factors that change an asteroid's course, such as the Yarkovsky Effect. The findings from OSIRIS-REx could help scientists fine-tune their strategy for heading off a future asteroid threat, whether it comes from 199 RQ36 or some other space rock. The mission also will help prepare the way for sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, which is a big part of NASA's current plans for exploration beyond Earth orbit.
OSIRIS-REx will represent NASA's first attempt to bring a piece of an asteroid back to Earth — following up on Japan's Hayabusa mission, which returned tiny bits of the asteroid Itokawa in 2010.
"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 [soil and rock] we return to Earth," Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a news release announcing the asteroid-naming contest.
OSIRIS-REx is actually a mouthful of an acronym standing for "Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer." Let's hope that the name selected for 1999 RQ36 is a little more mellifluous.
"We look forward to having a name that is easier to say than (101955) 1999 RQ36," Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, admitted in the news release.
The asteroid name game
The naming contest is open to students under the age of 18, anywhere in the world. Here are some of the conditions: Each contestant can submit one name, up to 16 characters in length. The entry must include a short explanation and rationale for the name (900 characters or less). Submissions must be made by an adult on behalf of the student. Deadline for submissions is Dec. 2.
A panel of experts will review the proposed names, and first prize will be awarded to the student whose suggested name is approved by the International Astronomical Union's Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature. The IAU has its own rules for asteroid names, including these:
Generally speaking, near-Earth objects such as 1999 RQ36 are named after mythological figures, but that's not a hard and fast rule. Your best strategy would be to come up with a story behind the name that relates to the point of the OSIRIS-REx mission.
The grand prize? The satisfaction that comes from knowing that you had a hand in naming a piece of the solar system (as I did in the case of asteroid Douglasadams). But wait ... there's more: The winner of the OSIRIS-REx contest also gets to sit in on a videoconference or teleconference with the asteroid's discoverer and members of the mission team. The winner and runners-up will also be in for a load of goodies they can share with their classmates. Check out the Planetary Society's contest rules for details.
"Asteroids are just cool, and 1999 RQ36 deserves a cool name!" Bill Nye, chief executive officer for the Planetary Society, said in today's news release. "Engaging kids around the world in a naming contest will get them tuned in to asteroids and asteroid science."
More about asteroids:
What name would you suggest for 1999 RQ36? Even if you're too old to enter the contest, you can still register your suggestions in a comment below.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.