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NASA Contest-winning 9-Year-Old Names Asteroid 'Bennu' After Egyptian Bird God

May 02, 2013 09:59 AM EDT
Simulated asteroid image - topography overlaid on radar imagery of Bennu. Michael Puzio, a nine-year-old from North Carolina, won an international contest to name the asteroid.
(Photo : NASA/GSFC/UA)

Michael Puzio is the first kid he knows to have named part of the solar system. The North Carolina third-grader bested more than 8,000 other entries in an international contest to name the asteroid that NASA has its eye on for its much-publicized asteroid capture mission.

Puzio's name for the space rock - "Bennu" - is a great change from the asteroid's technical name, (101955) 1999 RQ36.

NASA's Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is scheduled to visit asteroid Bennu in 2018, two years after the launching from Earth. It will return a sample of the asteroid to Earth in 2023.

The name Bennu has its roots in ancient Egyptian history, where the heron-like bird was an important deity. Accounts of the story differ, but Bennu is similar to a phoenix in that it arose spontaneously out of either a heart or fire.

Puzio wrote the name suits the asteroid because it means "the ascending one," or "to shine," the Imperial Valley News reported.

Entries to last year's "Name that Asteroid" contest came in from more than 25 countries around the world. Each of the more than 8,000 contestants submitted one name with a maximum of 16 characters and a short explanation of the name.

"There were many excellent entries that would be fitting names and provide us an opportunity to educate the world about the exciting nature of our mission," said Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona in Tucson, a contest judge and the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission, according to a NASA statement. "The information about the composition of Bennu and the nature of its orbit will enable us to explore our past and better understand our future." 

Puzio reportedly suggested the name Bennu because of the Touch-and-Go Sample Mechanism (TAGSAM) arm and solar panels on OSIRIS-REx look like the neck and wings in drawings of Bennu, which is frequently depicted as a gray heron.

"Bennu struck a chord with many of us right away," said Bruce Betts, director of projects for the Planetary Society and a contest judge, according. "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 parallel with asteroids as both bringers of life and as destructive forces in the solar system also created a great opportunity to teach." 

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