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NASA lands samples from Bennu, an asteroid named by an NC State student

Michael Puzio, center, helps hold a piece of asteroid. On his left is a man and on his right is a woman, both helping to hold the asteroid fragment. Behind all three is a colorful mural depicting various celestial bodies and objects.

When Michael Puzio was 9 years old, he named an asteroid.

The Planetary Society hosted a competition a decade ago that allowed the public to submit their asteroid names for review. Entrants like Puzio had to submit their name as well as justification for it.

“I put in the name Bennu and I said that it was appropriate because the sample capsule would return a piece of the asteroid back to earth,” said Puzio, now a sophomore in electrical engineering at NC State. “Similarly to how Osiris, which was part of the name of the mission, returned to earth as a Bennu.”

Image shows model of asteroid (grey) and a space probe (white) resting on a beige desktop.

Osiris was an Egyptian deity who returned to earth as a Bennu, symbolized by a gray heron, after being cut to pieces by his brother. The capsule containing sample rocks from Bennu, called the OSIRIS-REx capsule, landed back on earth this past weekend. Scientists hope to use these samples to better understand planet formation and the origin of life on earth.

Puzio won the competition and continued to stay involved with the mission. After taking an online course with NASA, he became an OSIRIS-REx ambassador and has gone to several conventions to speak about Bennu. His first time speaking was at a small convention called Tri-Star in Jamestown at Guilford Technical Community College.

“It was just a local one around where I’m from, a bunch of amateur astronomers meeting at a local community college,” he said. “They asked me to present on the mission, what was happening with it, why this was important. I was asked to go back two years later and then I was asked to go to my favorite space convention, Space Fest, which happened in Tucson.”

As an ambassador, Puzio also got to attend the launch of OSIRIS-REx back in 2016.

“I remember Bill Nye at the launch told me, when you’re looking at a rocket launch, first you see the rocket, then you hear the rocket and then you feel the rocket,” he said. “I didn’t understand what he meant until the building started shaking underneath the railing. That was really cool.”

A young Michael Puzio, right, talks with television personality Bill Nye, center, and an unidentified man, left.
A young Michael Puzio, right, talking to television personality Bill Nye, center.

The current mission to transport the Bennu sample space to the Utah desert is coming to an end, but Puzio hopes to see much more happen as far as space missions go. At age 9, he wrote that he hoped for, “a million more missions, to go to other galaxies, and to send astronauts to Mars!!”

In the present, Puzio said of the whole experience, “It’s only pushed me to see that there’s more than just the world, that space is so much more and that space is for everybody.”