When an asteroid is first discovered, it is given a provisional designation like "1999 RQ36." The first four digits tell you what year it was discovered. The last four characters tell you when in that year it was discovered. 1999 RQ36 was the 916th object observed in the first half of September, 1999.
Once the asteroid's orbit is precisely known, it is issued an official sequential number. 1999 RQ36 was the 101,955th asteroid to receive a number, so it is now formally known as 101955. Only about 5% of numbered asteroids have been given names.
When asteroids are discovered, they are initially named with numbers and letters encoding when they were first spotted. The Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory gives them these alphanumeric codes.
The asteroid's discoverer can propose to the International Astronomical Union to give the asteroid a formal name. The International Astronomical Union has established rules to guide the selection of names for objects located in different parts of the solar system. Here are the guidelines for naming (101955) 1999 RQ36:
Proposed names must be:
no more than 16 characters long (including any spaces or punctuation);
preferably one word;
pronounceable (in some language);
written using Latin characters (transliterations of names from languages not written using Latin characters are acceptable);
In addition, because (101955) 1999 RQ36 is a near-Earth object, its name should be from mythology, but the name should not be one associated with creation or underworld themes because those themes are used for other types of bodies in the solar system. The mythological name can come from any culture from any part of the world. In very rare cases, this definition has been stretched to include fictional mythological characters. There are some exceptions to these rules, and entries of names that are not mythological will not be disqualified. However, the International Astronomical Union is likelier to approve a name that is from mythology than one that is not.
The naming contest for the near Earth asteroid currently named (101955) 1999 RQ36 is a partnership of the Planetary Society; MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, the discoverers of (101955) 1999 RQ36; and the University of Arizona, who under principal investigator Dante Lauretta was chosen by NASA to lead the OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer) asteroid sample return mission.
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