NASA is inviting the public to submit their names to fly to an asteroid and back aboard a robotic spacecraft set to leave Earth in two years.
If the space agency's offer sounds familiar, that's because it is: NASA has been collecting and launching names on its space-bound missionsfor more than 15 years.
NASA and The Planetary Society's "Messages to Bennu!" is the latest incarnation of the "send your name to space" public outreach program. Announced on Wednesday (Jan. 15), names submitted before Sept. 30 will be flown aboard the OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer) spacecraft. [See photos of OSIRIS-Rex, NASA's asteroid sample-return mission]
"We are thrilled to share the OSIRIS-REx adventure with people across the Earth, to Bennu and back," said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission from the University of Arizona in Tucson, in a statement. "It's a great opportunity for people to get engaged with the mission early and join us as we prepare for launch."
OSIRIS-REx will collect a sample of Bennu's surface and return it to Earth in a capsule. The name-etched microchip meanwhile will remain in a long-term solar orbit around the sun with the spent spacecraft.
"You will be part of humankind's exploration of the solar system — how cool is that?" Bill Nye, the chief executive of The Planetary Society, the organization collecting and processing the name entries, said.
Judged by the number of names submitted and flown on NASA's past missions, the public apparently thinks it is plenty cool. Millions of names have been sent out into the solar system on more than a dozen NASA spacecraft (not accounting for duplicates flown on multiple probes).
One of the earliest name collections accompanied NASA's Stardust probe to Comet Wild 2 when the spacecraft was launched in 1999. Two microchips, one inside the sample return capsule and the other on the comet dust collection arm, held more than a million names, including all 52,214 inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Stardust microchip that was returned to Earth is now on display with the capsule at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
A separate list of names also flew to and impacted Comet Tempel 1 on NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft launched in 2005. The 650,000 names were collected between August 2003 and January 2004 and then were placed onto a small disc mounted on the probe's impactor.
NASA ran similar outreach campaigns for its planet- and moon-bound missions.
Names are now orbiting the moon on board NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) launched in 2009 and have been roving the Red Planet on the Mars Exploration Rover "Opportunity"for ten years this month (a similar collection was attached to Opportunity's twin, "Spririt," which ceased operating in 2010).
A pair of dime-sized microchips with a total of 1,246,445 names from 246 countries were mounted on the deck of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, which is now exploring Mars' Gale Crater. The names include those of 20,000 visitors to Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
Additional names were launched on the Kepler exoplanet-searching spacecraft, as well as on board the Pluto-bound New Horizons probe and Mars orbiter MAVEN mission.
NASA is not the only space agency to collect and launch names aboard its planetary probes. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) ran similar outreach programs for its SELENE moon orbiter and Akatsuki Venus probe.
JAXA and The Planetary Society most recently collected names for Japan's Hayabusa-2 asteroid mission launching later this year.
For most of these "send your name to space" programs, OSIRIS-REx included, participants can download and print a certificate documenting that their name flew onboard the mission.
To participate in "Messages to Bennu!" submit your name online no later than Sept. 30 at planetary.org/bennu.