When I was in second grade, my teacher, whom we called Mrs. McG., dutifully explained what happened to the ancient dinosaurs—why they disappeared. She did her best; the ancient dinosaurs had small brains, so rats and rabbits took their food, and the dinosaurs starved to death. She wasn’t satisfied with her standard answer any more than we were. Much later, when I was an adult out of engineering school and working, people discovered the enormous crater off the coast of Chicxulub, Mexico. Some dramatic lab experiments coupled with some compelling mathematics, led us to conclude that a not-especially-big rock probably hit the Earth 65 million years ago, creating a cone of ejecta bigger in diameter than the Earth itself. The debris reached into space about halfway to the Moon. Since this discovery, many studies and models have been created to understand asteroid orbits and impacts. Asteroids could be a matter of life and death for us, and most of the other species on Earth. So when we have an opportunity, we study them.
Asteroid 1999 RQ36 was discovered 13 years ago. It’s a big rock about 500 meters (5 soccer fields, or a third of a mile) across. It happens to be in an orbit that we can reach with a carefully designed spacecraft boosted into space with a carefully planned rocket launch. The spacecraft is called OSIRIS-Rex (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer). Osiris in Egyptian mythology ruled the underworld. So he would know a great deal about the history of all that is or ever was...and this spacecraft will probe the origin of the Solar System...or something like that. That’s how the spacecraft got its name.
This mission will return a piece of the ancient asteroid 1999 RQ36. Now, 1999 RQ36 is a good name, but we at the Planetary Society think you can do better. We’re sponsoring a naming contest. You have to be under 18; you have to have an adult submit the name, and it has to be a great name. If you’re a kid, or if you know a kid, think about a name for an ancient piece of the Solar System that will give us new knowledge about the origin of the Earth and how we all came to be here. If your name is selected, it will be quite an honor. You’ll find the link for submitting right here. I hope the name you come up with will inspire people everywhere to learn about asteroids and the Earth’s place among the stars, our place in space. Name on!