Student Asteroid Naming Contest Announced

For Immediate Release
September 04, 2012

The Planetary Society
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

Students around the world have the opportunity to suggest names for an asteroid that will be visited by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft later this decade. 

Scheduled for launch in 2016, the OSIRIS-REx mission will return the first samples ever taken from a special type of asteroid holding clues to the origin of the solar system and likely organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.

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 1999 RQ36, and the University of Arizona, which under principal investigator Dante Lauretta, leads NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer) asteroid sample return mission.  NASA Goddard will provide overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance.

1999 RQ36 was discovered in 1999 by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) asteroid survey as part of a program to detect and catalog near Earth asteroids, comets, and minor planets.  The asteroid has an average diameter of approximately 500 meters (one-third of a mile). Scientists have identified several times late in the 22nd century when 1999 RQ36 could potentially impact Earth.

“Our mission will be focused on 1999 RQ36 for more than a decade, and we look forward to having a name that is easier to say than (101955) 1999 RQ36,” said OSIRIS REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta.

Newly discovered asteroids are given their initial alphanumeric designations by the Minor Planet Center, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, after astronomers determine a refined orbit.  Asteroid discoverers can submit brief proposals in support of a name for the discovered asteroid to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). 

“We are excited to have discovered the minor planet that will be visited by the OSIRIS REx mission and to be able to engage students around the world to suggest a name for 1999 RQ36,” said Grant Stokes, Head of the Aerospace Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Principal Investigator for the LINEAR program.

The competition is open to youth under age 18 from anywhere in the world.  Each contestant can submit one name along with a short explanation and rationale for the name.  The name must match many guidelines, for example it must be 16 characters or fewer, and no other asteroid can have the same name.  Submissions are to be by an adult on behalf of the student. 

Complete rules and guidelines can be found at which is also where contest submissions are to be made by December 2, 2012. 

Proposed asteroid names will be reviewed by a panel assembled by the competition partners.  Then, the top name will be proposed to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature.  The first prize winner will be the student that recommended the name that is approved by the IAU.  In the case of multiple submissions of the winning name, first prize will go to the submission with the best explanation/rationale.

“Asteroids are just cool and 1999 RQ36 deserves a cool name!” said Planetary Society Chief Executive Officer Bill Nye. “Engaging kids around the world in a naming contest will get them tuned in to asteroids and asteroid science.”

The Planetary Society:

The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. Today, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world.  Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded The Planetary Society in 1980.  The Planetary Society carries out a wide range of projects to engage the public in space exploration.

University of Arizona

As a public research university serving the diverse citizens of Arizona and beyond, the mission of the University of Arizona is to provide a comprehensive, high-quality education that engages our students in discovery through research and broad-based scholarship.  The University of Arizona was selected by NASA lead the production and flight of the OSIRIS-REx mission.

Lincoln Laboratory

Lincoln Laboratory is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Projects undertaken by the Laboratory focus on the development and prototyping of new technologies and capabilities, and extend from fundamental investigations through design and field testing of prototype systems. Among many projects, Lincoln Laboratory operates the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program to detect and catalog near Earth asteroids, comets, and minor planets.

About The Planetary Society

With a global community of more than 2 million space enthusiasts, The Planetary Society is the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy organization. Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman and today led by CEO Bill Nye, we empower the public to take a meaningful role in advancing space exploration through advocacy, education outreach, scientific innovation, and global collaboration. Together with our members and supporters, we’re on a mission to explore worlds, find life off Earth, and protect our planet from dangerous asteroids. To learn more, visit