Sep. 05, 2012

Name That Asteroid!

by Leslie Taylor

Click to enlarge images
Students, NASA needs your help finding the perfect name for an asteroid. Currently it's called (101955) 1999 RQ36 -- a name which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue.
The asteroid has an average diameter of about one-third of a mile -- not big by asteroid standards. (Asteroids can be as large as Ceres, which is about 583 miles across.) 
When it was first discovered, (101955) 1999 RQ36 was given it's cumbersome name by the Minor Planet Center, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On their website, the Planetary Society explains asteroid naming conventions:
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.
In order to help researchers investigate planet formation and the origin of life, a sample will be collected from the soon to be renamed asteroid as part of the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2016.
“We look forward to having a name that is easier to say than (101955) 1999 RQ36.” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission, in a statement.
Contest deadline is December 2, 2012. For full contest rules and guidelines, visit
About Leslie Taylor

Leslie is the online editor at and She has a background in oceanography and is passionate about getting non-scientists and young people to realize how cool science can be. She is also Science Friday's former web editor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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