In 2016, NASA will launch a spacecraft that will return the largest sample of an extraterrestrial object since the lunar missions ended over 35 years ago. The target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will be a primitive asteroid with the assigned designation (101955) 1999 RQ36. Believing the asteroid deserved a more memorable name, the OSIRIS-REx team, led by the University of Arizona, partnered with The Planetary Society and MIT Lincoln Laboratory (discoverers of the asteroid) to sponsor a contest to rename the asteroid. Over 8,000 students from over twenty-five countries around the world entered the Name that Asteroid! contest. The International Astronomical Union approved the name, Bennu, this month.
Judges enjoyed reading through the imaginative and informative entries. Dante Lauretta, Principal Investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission and one of the judges said, “There were many excellent entries that would be a fitting name and provide us an opportunity to educate the world about the exciting nature of our mission.” Despite all the excellent choices, the judges had to narrow it to one, and now, the asteroid formerly known as (101955) 1999 RQ36 has its new official name — (101955) Bennu (pronounced ben-oo).
Winning contestant, Mike Puzio, age 9, suggested that the large heron-like Touch-and-Go Sample Mechanism (TAGSAM) arm and winged OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made him think of Bennu. Puzio wrote “The winged OSIRIS-REx and its heron-like TAGSAM evoke attributes of Bennu, as does the egg shape of the asteroid itself.”
Bennu was an important avian deity in ancient Egypt and one of the symbols of the god Osiris. Egyptians usually depicted Bennu as a gray heron. The double nature of asteroids delivering life’s molecules and sometimes bringing destruction such as the recent fall in Chelyabinsk, Russia, inspired the mission name, OSIRIS-REx, and now the asteroid’s name.
The heron-TAGSAM and egg-asteroid parallels weren’t the only similarities that struck the judges. The god Bennu was commonly associated with the gods Atum, the primeval deity, and Re, the Sun god. Astronomers think that the OSIRIS-REx target asteroid is a primitive object that dates back to the creation of the Solar System because earthly analogues for the asteroid Bennu are carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, which have compositions very similar to that of the Sun. Indeed, our own long-lived Solar System was “reborn” from the remnants of stellar explosions over 4.5 Billion years ago. So origins, rebirth and duality are all part of the story of this asteroid.
This contest was a partnership among NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, The Planetary Society and Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) asteroid survey. Contestants submitted one name along with a short explanation for their choice to The Planetary Society. Names were required to comply with naming guidelines from the Minor Planet Center.
Bruce Betts, Director of Projects for the Planetary Society, and another judge in the contest, commented on the new name. “Bennu struck a chord with many of us right away. 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.”
The partners assembled a panel to review the submissions and to submit a top choice to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Committee for Small Body Nomenclature. The IAU approved and assigned the name.
“We are so impressed with the quality of the contest entries that we have decided to recommend four runner-up submissions as names for other minor planets discovered by the LINEAR program. The names Muninn, Nabu, Polymatheia and Ragnarok will be submitted to the IAU as recommended names.” said judge Grant Stokes, head of the Aerospace Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and principal investigator for the LINEAR program. Students living in the United States and Brazil provided these four names. Perhaps robotic spacecraft will one day visit these asteroids too.
The OSIRIS-REx mission has invited the contest winner and four runners-up to provide messages on the microchip that will travel to Bennu and return on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The microchip will contain names of thousands of people from around the world. Watch for more information about this activity in Fall 2013.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will launch in 2016, rendezvous with Bennu in 2018 and take a sample in 2019. The spacecraft will return a small sample of the asteroid to Earth in 2023. The OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission will return knowledge from a type of asteroid never before visited, a carbonaceous asteroid. The information about the composition of Bennu and its orbit will enable us to explore our past and secure our future.
"It is really neat that a young student of astronomy got to name our target asteroid - I am sure that Michael learned a lot about 'what's in a name,' and he and the other contestants will never think about planet and asteroid names the same way again. I know we won’t!" remarked judge Beth Clark of Ithaca College.