The intergalactic rock known as (101955) 1999 RQ36 is getting a makeover.
If orbiting projections prove correct, a couple hundred years from now the asteroid currently known as (101955) 1999 RQ36 has a pretty good chance of hitting Earth. Don't worry, death-by-asteroid isn't all doom and gloom. Thanks to a new contest inviting modern students to submit possible names for the asteroid, future generations will be referring to the impending destroyer of the planet with a much snazzier moniker.
True, one of the astronomers who discovered (101955) 1999 RQ36 in September 1999 could probably do a decent job naming it. However, the contest sponsors, Bill Nye's Planetary Society, MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, and the University of Arizona are surely using it as a chance to get students interested in science and technology. They're also using the asteroid to educate kids about the upcoming mission of a space craft called OSIRIS-REx to collect asteroid pieces and bring them back to Earth. Scientists will subsequently study "the asteroid's orbit, composition, and characteristics to answer questions about the early Solar System, building blocks of life, and potential impact hazards."
The International Astronomical Union has some pretty explicit naming guidelines. Names can't be more than 16 characters long, can't be offensive, and can't be similar to any other astronomical object. To save us from an asteroid named "Bieber Rocks", (101955) 1999 RQ36's name "should be from mythology," although the "mythology of any culture is acceptable."
Thought of an amazing name? You'll want to share it with a student under the age of 18 because adults aren't eligible to enter. Along with filling out the entry form, students also have to write a short paragraph explaining their name choice. If you know of some students who might get inspired by a shot at naming an asteroid, the deadline is December 2, 2012. In the meantime, let's hope all those projections of (101955)1999 RQ36 slamming into Earth prove to the result of faulty arithmetic.