Young student names asteroid discovered by
Lincoln Laboratory's LINEAR survey

NASA mission will collect samples from this asteroid in 2019

In 2016, the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) scientific mission, the third mission in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) New Frontiers Program, will begin its journey to a primitive asteroid to collect the largest sample of an extraterrestrial object since the Apollo missions ended more than 35 years ago.

The target asteroid, originally named (101955) 1999 RQ36, was discovered in 1999 by the electro-optical telescopes operated by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program of MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Today, the asteroid has a new, easy-to-use name—Bennu [or officially (101955) Bennu]. The name was submitted to the Name That Asteroid! contest by nine-year-old Michael Toler Puzio of North Carolina and accepted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which authorizes all astronomical nomenclature. The contest was a partnership among the University of Arizona, which is the principal investigator institution for the OSIRIS-REx mission, the Planetary Society, and the LINEAR program.  

Michael's entry for the asteroid name was chosen from among approximately 8000 entries sent by students from 25 countries around the world. Bennu was one of the symbols of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris, who reigned over resurrection and fertility. Egyptians usually depicted Bennu as a gray heron. Michael wrote that the large heron-like Touch-and-Go Sample Mechanism (TAGSAM) arm and winged OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made him think of a heron. When the judges chose to submit Bennu to the IAU Committee for Small Body Nomenclature, they also considered Bennu's connection to Osiris—a name chosen for the NASA mission because, like Osiris, asteroids have a dual nature as sources of both life's molecules and danger.

Rendering of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraftThe OSIRIS-REx spacecraft with its sample-collecting arm resembles a standing heron and inspired Michael Toler Puzio’s inventive name for the asteroid that the OSIRIS-REx space mission will visit.
Rendering credit: NASA/Goddard Flight Center/University of Arizona.

"The process of choosing a name was much harder than we imagined it would be," said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission and one of the contest judges. "There were many excellent entries that would be a fitting name and provide us an opportunity to educate the world about the exciting nature of our mission."

Dr. Grant Stokes, head of the Aerospace Division at Lincoln Laboratory and principal investigator for the LINEAR program, not only agreed with Lauretta's assessment of the entries, but also knew a way to reward other worthy entries. "We were so impressed with the quality of the contest entries that we have decided to recommend the four runner-up submissions be used as names for other minor planets discovered by the LINEAR program. Muninn, Nabu, Polymatheia, and Ragnarok will be submitted to the IAU as recommended names for four main-belt asteroids."

Stokes and the LINEAR program have a great deal of experience in asteroid naming. Since its initial survey operations began in1998, LINEAR has discovered about 250,000 near-Earth objects, 137,000 of which have been numbered by the IAU and are available to be named. The IAU grants discoverers of asteroids the privilege of suggesting names for them. By 2001, LINEAR had accrued the rights to suggest names for 2000 asteroids and was faced with the problem of how best to decide upon names. The solution was to use the naming rights to promote science education, and the idea, developed in partnership with Science Service, Inc. (now the Society for Science and the Public), became the Ceres Connection, which rewards winners of select, international science competitions and their teachers with asteroids named in their honor. Since October 2001, when the first 40 finalists in the Discovery Science Challenge Competition accepted awards verifying that the IAU had approved asteroid names celebrating their achievements, about 3,000 junior or senior high-school students and their teachers have been honored. Now Michael Toler Puzio has the honor of naming an asteroid whose samples will help scientists understand the properties and the evolution of primitive space objects.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will rendezvous with Bennu in 2018, take a small sample of the asteroid in 2019, and return the sample to Earth in 2023. The sample's information about the composition of Bennu and its orbit will enable scientists to gain new knowledge of a carbonaceous asteroid and the solar system's past.

The mission is a collaboration among a number of organizations. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will provide overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. The University of Arizona, Tucson, is serving as the principal investigator. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver will build the spacecraft. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the New Frontiers program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and its scientific mission objectives, visit, and for more about asteroids, space, and the contest, visit

Posted May 2013


top of page