NASA has invited school students to come up with a name for the Mars 2020 rover, set to land on the Red Planet in February 2021.
Alas, despite Australia’s long engagement with NASA and the US space program and longstanding alliance and involvement alongside the US in various wars, this contest in only open to US students.
Were Space Connect both a student and American, we would suggest that NASA couldn’t possibly go past naming their rover Rover McRoverface.
NASA said the Name the Rover contest was part of its efforts to engage students in the STEM enterprise behind Mars exploration and inspire interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“This naming contest is a wonderful opportunity for our nation's youth to get involved with NASA's moon to Mars missions," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
"It is an exciting way to engage with a rover that will likely serve as the first leg of a Mars Sample return campaign, collecting and caching core samples from the Martian surface for scientists here on Earth to study for the first time."
The contest is being run kind of like a US pageant. To enter, students must submit their proposed name and a short essay of no more than 150 words, explaining why their proposed name should be chosen, by 1 November.
Essays will be divided into three groups, by grade level – K-4, 5-8, and 9-12 – and judged on the appropriateness, significance and originality of their proposed name, and the originality and quality of their essay, and/or finalist interview presentation.
Fifty-two semi-finalists will be selected per group, each representing a US state or territory. Three finalists from each group will advance to the final round.
As part of the final selection, the American public will have an opportunity to vote online on the nine finalists in January 2020.
NASA plans to announce the winner on 18 February 2020, a year before the rover lands on Mars.
The one-tonne, six-wheeled rover will carry a range of instruments to examine the Mars surface, atmosphere and climate, and to detect organic compounds and indications of past life. It even carries a small drone to scout the best travel route.
It will collect samples for collection and return to Earth in a future unmanned mission, a prerequisite for an eventual crewed mission.
NASA also announced that its engineers had successfully attached the Mars Helicopter to the Mars 2020 rover in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet.
The helicopter will remain encapsulated in the rover after landing and will be deployed once a suitable area to conduct test flights is found.
NASA said the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration.
If it doesn’t work properly, the Mars 2020 science mission won't be impacted. If it does work as planned, future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.
"Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere," said Mars Helicopter project manager MiMi Aung.
"Since our helicopter is designed as a flight test of experimental technology, it carries no science instruments. But if we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet."
Future Mars drones could investigate difficult-to-reach areas such as cliffs, caves and deep craters, and could carry small science instruments or act as scouts for human and robotic explorers.
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