The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, set to launch in 2016, will bring back samples from the primitive surface of the near-Earth asteroid currently called (101955) 1999 RQ36 in hopes of discovering clues to the origin of the solar system and organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth, the space agency said Tuesday.
The competition to name the asteroid is open to students under 18 years of age. They can submit one name, up to 16 characters long.
Entries must include a short explanation and rationale for the name and must be made by an adult on behalf of the student before Dec. 2, NASA said.
"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 in Greenbelt, Md.
A panel will review proposed names, and first prize will be awarded to the student whose entry 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."