Near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36, a 140 trillion kilogram hunk of rock and ice, more than half a kilometer in diameter, hurtling through space at more than 45,000 km/h, is set to come dangerously close to hitting Earth on eight different dates between 2169 and 2199, with its highest probability on September 24, 2182. Since 1999 RQ36 isn't a very auspicious name for the object that may cause untold devastation to our planet, NASA is calling upon school children to give it a better one.
The risk of the asteroid actually hitting the Earth on that date is only 1 in 3,570, however with the complex method of calculating that value, there can be significant errors, and that is why it is still of concern to scientists.
The asteroid is the target of the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, scheduled to launch in 2016. The mission spacecraft will land on the surface of the asteroid, gather samples from it, and then return to Earth with its cargo.
"This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration," said Jim Green, the director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. "The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids."
The contest to name the asteroid is open to anyone under the age of 18, from anywhere in the world.
"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.