NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, set to visit asteroid (101955) 1999 RQ36, will still go there, but scientists will be calling the space rock Bennu, thanks to student Michael Puzio, who submitted the winning entry in an international student contest to give the asteroid a friendlier, easier-to-roll-off-the-tongue name.
Puzio suggested Bennu after an important ancient Egyptian avian deity, because he thought a robotic sampling arm and the solar panels on the spacecraft look like the neck and wings in drawings of Bennu, which Egyptians usually depicted as a gray heron.
OSIRIS-Rex is scheduled to launch in 2016, rendezvous with Bennu in 2018 and return a sample of the asteroid to Earth in 2023. The sample arm will gather material from Bennu and store it for return to Earth.
"There were many excellent entries that would be fitting names and provide us an opportunity to educate the world about the exciting nature of our mission," said Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona in Tucson, a contest judge and the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission. "The information about the composition of Bennu and the nature of its orbit will enable us to explore our past and better understand our future."
The "Name that Asteroid!" contest garnered entries from more than 8,000 students younger than age 18 from 25 countries, NASA said.