Unperturbed by people voting to name a polar research ship Boaty McBoatface, NASA is asking for ideas to name its next Mars rover.
The US space agency has been putting the exploration vehicle through its paces with a series of drills ahead of its planned launch next July, but its galactic readiness will not be completely secured until it has a name.
NASA will be hoping the American students it is seeking help from will be more sensible with their ideas than the British public, who were overruled in their bid to give the RRS Sir David Attenborough a far sillier moniker.
Pupils in US public, private and home schools are all eligible to enter the competition on the NASA website, where they will be asked to submit a short essay explaining their choice.
It must not have been used on a previous space mission, cannot be corporate or trademarked, and can only be named after someone if that person is deceased.
While entries are only being accepted from US students ahead of the 1 November deadline, anyone will be invited to vote on the final picks in a public poll in January.
The rover is not scheduled to land on the surface of Mars until the afternoon of 18 February 2021, and will arrive with four key objectives:
- Identify past environments capable of supporting life.
- Searching for signs of life in those areas.
- Collecting rock and soil samples.
- Test oxygen production in the atmosphere.
Each goal relates to the potential for life on Mars, with the fourth aiming to give NASA scientists an idea as to whether humans could one day inhabit the planet.
The unnamed rover will follow in the footsteps of Curiosity, which made headlines earlier this summer when NASA announced it had detected the largest ever amount of methane on Mars.
Curiosity measured the spike in an area known as the Gale Crater, although it was not equipped with the necessary instruments to determine the exact source of the gas.
Methane being found in significant quantities on other planets is notable because it is commonly associated with living things back on Earth, and the measurement taken in June – 21 parts per billion units by volume (PPBV) – was the highest concentration the rover had recorded since landing in August 2012.
Another rover hoping to land on Mars in the spring of 2021 is ExoMars vehicle Rosalind Franklin, named after the British chemist who played a key role in the discovery of DNA.
It left an Airbus facility in Stevenage this week after a 14-year construction period, and is being taken to another Airbus site in Toulouse, France, for testing ahead of a planned launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan next July.
ExoMars is the product of a joint venture between the European Space Agency and the Russian equivalent Roscosmos, which also wants to explore the surface of Mars for signs of life.
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