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Published May 7, 2013

 

Near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36 has been given a new name courtesy of a third grader from North Carolina. Nine-year-old Michael Puzio has won an international contest to rename the asteroid at the center of two new NASA missions, Osiris-Rex and ISIS.

Nine-year-old Michael Puzio

 

"It's great!" Puzio said after winning the contest. "I'm the first kid I know that named part of the solar system!"

The asteroid, now named "Bennu" after an Egyptian god, will be the target of Osiris-Rex's sample recovery mission and ISIS's asteroid collision mission. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris, the god of the afterlife, was the husband of Isis. Bennu is a potentially dangerous asteroid, with a 1 in 1000 chance to hit the Earth in 2182.

The "Name that Asteroid!" contest was launched last year by the University of Arizona, The Planetary Society and the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory. Over 8,000 students from 25 different countries, all under the age of 18, participated in the contest. Each contestant had to provide a name along with an explanation for their choice.

Bennu (pronounced ben-oo) is an Egyptian god commonly depicted as a grey heron and is sometimes said to be the soul of the sun-god Ra. Puzio nominated the name because he thought Osiris Rex's Touch-and-Go Sample Mechanism arm (TAGSAM) and solar panels resembled the neck and wings of Bennu.

The Egyptian god Bennu

 

"The name 'Bennu' struck a chord with many of us right away," Bruce Betts, director of projects for the nonprofit Planetary Society, said in a statement. "While there were many great entries, the similarity between the image of the heron and the TAGSAM arm of Osiris-Rex was a clever choice."

The Osiris Rex and ISIS missions will both be launched  in 2016, arriving at the asteroid between 2019 and 2021.

 

Osiris Rex

The Osiris-Rex, short for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, is a planetary science mission with the goal of studying and collecting samples from Bennu. Osiris-Rex is part of the New Frontiers Program, a NASA program with the goal of exploring and researching the planets in our solar system.  Osiris-Rex is the program's third mission, following New Horizons which launched for Pluto on January 19, 2006 and Juno which launched for Jupiter on August 5, 2011. Osiris-Rex will be launched in September 2016.

The Osiris Rex spacecraft approaching the asteroid Bennu.

 

Once launched, Osiris-Rex will rendezvous with the asteroid by 2018 after traveling for 2 years. It will then spend the next 505 days scanning the 1,840-foot-wide (560 meters) asteroid, mapping its surface from a distance of approximately 3 miles (4.8 kilometers). The results of this scan will be used by the mission team to choose a suitable site for the spacecraft to approach, culminating in the extension of the TAGSAM arm to collect samples. These samples, ranging from 60 grams to 2 kilograms (2.1 oz to 4.4 lb), will be returned to Earth in a capsule by 2023, where they will be sent to a dedicated research facility at the Johnson Space Center.

Bennu, originally designated as 1999 RQ36, was chosen for this mission for its composition of pristine carbonaceous material, a key element in the organic molecules necessary for life. Furthermore, as asteroids are made from primitive material left over from the formation of the solar system, this carbonaceous asteroid gives us a glimpse into the properties of matter as they were at the beginning of the solar system.

"The samples of Bennu returned by Osiris-Rex will allow scientists to peer into the origin of the solar system and gain insights into the origin of life,” Jason Dworkin, an Osiris-Rex project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD., said in a statement.

These asteroids may have helped life on Earth by providing water and important, complex carbon molecules during its formation 4.5 billion years ago. Organic molecules have already been found in samples from meteorites and comets, proving that some of the molecules essential to life can be formed in space. By studying these samples, scientists will learn more about the formation and evolution of our solar system as well as the origins of organic compounds that led to the formation of life on our planet.

The cost of the mission is estimated at $800 million, though the launch vehicle for the spacecraft will add an additional $200 million. While the costs might seem cringeworthy to some, it is important to remember that Bennu could potentially collide with the Earth in the future. A detailed analysis of the composition and surface of the asteroid could prove vital to any countermeasures we may need to employ in preventing disaster.

 

ISIS

Also set to launch in 2016 is NASA's InSight Mars mission, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. This mission aims to send a stationary lander to Mars equipped with a seismometer and heat flow probe in order to study Mars' early geological evolution.

Aside from the main mission to Mars, NASA also plans on adding an asteroid-deflection experiment when the InSight launches in March 2016. Once launched into space, the Impactor for Surface and Interior Sciences, or ISIS, will be sent on a collision course with the asteroid Bennu, at which point it will already have the Osiris-Rex spacecraft in orbit.

The ISIS probe in orbit around Bennu, with Osiris Rex in the background.

 

The collision will take place after Osiris-Rex finishes its collection of samples. However, the spacecraft will remain in proximity of Bennu in order to observe and record the impact. The ISIS probe will then strike the asteroid at high-velocity, creating a crater tens of meters in diameter. After the collision, Osiris-Rex will then compare the newly created crater with images from its previous scan, collect exposed samples of the asteroid, and return to Earth.

"This opportunity with a free launch and the observer spacecraft already at the asteroid is like a planetary alignment. It almost never happens," said Steven Chesley a NASA scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

ISIS will allow scientists to gauge the effectiveness and implications of an impact on an asteroid. The data and outcome of the mission, most notably the asteroid's change in speed and heading from the collision, could showcase asteroid deflection techniques as a method of planetary defense. This will work in conjunction with the security aspect of Osiris-Rex, which will study the future orbits of asteroid Bennu and the possibilities of it colliding with Earth in the future. The mission could help give NASA more information and strategies in the exploration of near-Earth asteroids, as well as providing the data needed to galvanize scientists and policymakers in taking measures to protect our home planet.

For the time being, ISIS is still in its proposal stage, still awaiting approval in order to move on to full-scale development. Estimates put the cost of the mission at $100 million. Steven Chesley, who is leading development on the ISIS mission, hopes for the all clear signal by fall.

"We are not past our window for implementing this mission," Chesley said, "but there's not a lot of time."

 

For more information on NASA's Osiris-Rex mission: http://science.nasa.gov/missions/osiris-rex/

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Cat lover and avid space know-it-all, I am a terrible gamer who consistently sucks at any game that requires aiming. As a result I play EVE Online, but I can also make a mighty fine omelette in Cooking Mama.

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