NASA is giving students worldwide an opportunity to name an asteroid that the future OSIRIS-Rex mission will return samples from to Earth. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2016, orbit the asteroid in 2019 and become the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth in 2023.
The asteroid, 1999 RQ36, is approximately 1,900 feet in diameter or roughly the size of five football fields. It orbits between 83 million and 126 million miles from the sun and passes within about 280,000 miles of Earth's orbit. NASA has officially classified RQ36 as a "potentially hazardous asteroid" and some scientists give it a 0.071 chance of hitting Earth in 2182.
Scientists believe the asteroid could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.
After intercepting the asteroid, the spacecraft's cameras and instruments will spend a year imaging and mapping the asteroid in visible wavelengths through far-infrared wavelengths to figure out its basic chemical and mineralogical composition. This information will give scientists a better understanding of asteroids as well as help the mission team select a site for the spacecraft to scoop up surface samples.
OSIRIS will not land on the asteroid when it captures surface samples. Instead, the spacecraft will approach the surface at 0.2 mph and, without landing, stretch out its robot arm to collect more than two ounces of material that was stirred up on the surface when the spacecraft vents ultra-pure nitrogen.
The contest is open to students under the age of 18. To enter, teachers or parents must fill out an online entry form with the proposed name, up to 16 characters long, and a short explanation why they feel that name is a good choice. The contest deadline is Dec. 2. To see the contest's rules and guidelines visit: http://planetary.org/name.