Students: Asteroid 1999 RQ36 Needs a New Name!

NASA and the Planetary Society are giving students worldwide the opportunity to name an asteroid. And it’s not just any asteroid; an upcoming NASA mission will return samples of this asteroid to Earth. The Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) will be heading to an asteroid, currently named (101955) 1999 RQ36. The poor asteroid just needs a name that is a little more exciting and user-friendly – something that is easy to remember!

Scheduled to launch in 2016, the mission could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth. NASA also is planning a crewed mission to an asteroid by 2025. A closer scientific study of asteroids will provide context and help inform this mission.

“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.

The competition is open to students under age 18 from anywhere in the world. Each contestant can submit one name, up to 16 characters long. Entries must include a short explanation and rationale for the name. Submissions must be made by an adult on behalf of the student. The contest deadline is Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012.

See here for contest rules and instructions.

Simulated asteroid image – topography overlaid on radar imagery of 1999 RQ36. Credit: NASA/GSFC/UA

The contest is also sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington; and the University of Arizona in Tucson.

A panel will review proposed asteroid names. First prize will be awarded to the student who recommends a name that 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.”

The asteroid was discovered in 1999 by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. LINEAR is part of NASA’s Near Earth Observation Program, Washington, which detects and catalogs near-Earth asteroids, and comets. The asteroid has an average diameter of approximately 500 meters (1,640 feet).

“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 asteroid received its designation of (101955) 1999 RQ36 from the Minor Planet Center, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. The center assigns an initial alphanumeric designation to any newly discovered asteroid that once certain criteria are met to determine its orbit.

“Asteroids are just cool and 1999 RQ36 deserves a cool name!” said Bill Nye, chief executive officer for The Planetary Society. “Engaging kids around the world in a naming contest will get them tuned in to asteroids and asteroid science.”

Click here for more info about the OSIRIS-Rex mission

Robots Tested in Sample Return Challenge

Caption: Participants in NASA’s Sample Return Robot Challenge. Credit: NASA

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Andy Tomaswick, an electrical engineer who follows space science and technology.

Picking up rocks can be harder than you’d think. That is one of the lessons to take away from the recently completed Sample Return Robot Challenge hosted by NASA and the Worchester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

The challenge offered a $1.5 million prize to the robot that could complete a series of automated search and retrieve missions while also meeting NASA’s technical standards for the design of the robot. NASA intended to farm the technologies developed for the competition for design ideas for a possible future Mars sample return mission.

Many NASA employees got to see the technologies first hand at the competition in Massachusetts on a weekend in June. Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator, spoke at a pre-event ceremony followed by a chance for the teams to show off their robots to local high school students, with some 7,000 people in total attending the event.

The actual challenge started off with a test to see if the teams complied with the design regulations handed out by NASA. Five of the six teams that showed up for he event failed to meet the standards, with Team SpacePRIDE from Graniteville, South Carolina the only team to successfully do so. The main difficulty for most teams dealt with a safety-related pause switch which required all moving parts to immediately suspend its movement upon triggering that switch. This would, in theory, save any innocent bystanders from the wrath of an autonomous robot that is not yet subject to the Three Laws of Robotics. Despite the switch not functioning as intended on most robots, all the teams were allowed to participate in the actual event, and the competition went on as planned.

However, the task proved too much for any robot, as none were able to successfully collect the samples needed to meet the challenge’s requirements in the time allotted. The teams did display one of the strengths of the open challenge type format: they all brought very unique ideas to bear on solving the automated problem. Team SpacePRIDE drew particular attention by having a three-robot system, with two smaller scout rovers and one larger collector rover. All of the teams had plenty of feedback to give to the NASA sponsors, and all of the competitors seemed to enjoy themselves as well.

That feedback lies at the real heart of the Centennial Challenge competitions that NASA has been hosting. Even if no one wins the prizes on offer, the challenges themselves draw interest from students around the country as well as spawn ideas from the teams. The good thing about no one completing the challenge this year is that next year the $1.5 million pot is still up for grabs, assuming NASA agrees to sponsor the event again.

Source: NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge Concludes, Team SpacePRIDE