A near-Earth asteroid that's getting a visit from a NASA spacecraft in 2018 has received a new name.
Asteroid (1019855) 1999 RQ 36 will now be known as "Bennu," the name proposed by nine-year-old Michael Puzio, a Grade 3 student in North Carolina, NASA announced Wednesday. Puzio was among 8,000 students under 18 from 25 countries who submitted names to an asteroid naming contest.
Bennu is the name of an ancient Egyptian god who usually resembles a grey heron.
OSIRIS-REx, the spacecraft that will rendezvous with the asteroid, also bears the name of an ancient Egyptian god. In fact, Puzio wrote, Bennu was the living symbol of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead.
The spacecraft has two solar panels and an arm that will take samples from the asteroid. Puzio envisioned those looking like the wings and neck of Bennu, he wrote in support of his nomination. He added that the name suits the asteroid because it means "the ascending one" or "to shine."
OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to launch in 2016, arrive at the asteroid in 2018, collect a sample of gravel from the asteroid's surface, and leave in 2021, returning to Earth in 2023.
Bennu is about 500 metres in diameter and one of only five known near-Earth asteroids more than 200 metres in diameter that is rich in carbon, an element common in living tissues.
Researchers hypothesize that this type of asteroid may have brought some components necessary for life to Earth during the planet's early history, NASA says.
The asteroid , discovered in 1999, swings near Earth every six years, sometimes as close as within 450,000 kilometres. NASA is particularly interested in Bennu's orbit because it is one of the asteroids most likely to hit the Earth over the next couple of hundred years — there is currently a one in 1,800 chance that it will collide with our planet in 2182.