The sky really is the limit in a new competition by US space agency NASA that invites students from Ireland and around the world to name an asteroid from which an upcoming NASA mission will return samples to Earth.
The mission, called the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), is scheduled to launch in 2016, with the near-Earth asteroid currently named (101955) 1999 RQ36 as its target.
Samples from the asteroid may reveal clues to the origin of the solar system and organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth, NASA said in a statement.
But that’s not all – NASA is also planning a crewed mission to an asteroid by 2025, and the scientific study of (101955) 1999 RQ36 will provide context and help provide the future mission with background information.
"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, Maryland.
NASA’S name-an-asteroid competition rules
The competition is open to students under age 18 from anywhere in the world. Each contestant can submit one name, up to 16 characters long. Entries must include a short explanation and reason for the name. Submissions must be made by an adult on behalf of the student. The deadline for submissions is Sunday, 2 December, 2012.
A panel will review the proposed asteroid names and the International Astronomical Union Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature will approve the winning name.
"Our mission will be focused on this asteroid for more than a decade," said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission at the University of Arizona.
"We look forward to having a name that is easier to say than (101955) 1999 RQ36."
Watch a video explanation about the competition here: