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NASA 2020 Mars rover
This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Mars 2020 rover on the surface of Mars. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

NASA says a student will provide the official name for its 2020 Mars rover, continuing a tradition that began 16 years ago.

The space agency will kick off its “Name the Rover” contest on Sept. 3, just as most elementary schools and high schools are getting back into session.

One grand prize winner will name the rover and win an invitation to the spacecraft’s launch next July from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“This naming contest is a wonderful opportunity for our nation’s youth to get involved with NASA’s Moon to Mars missions,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a news release. “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 1-ton, SUV-sized rover is an upgraded version of NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the Red Planet’s surface since 2012. Eight months after launch, it’s due to touch down on a spot north of the Martian equator in Jezero Crater. That’s an area of interest to scientists because it’s thought to be the site of an ancient river delta, potentially containing chemical traces of microbial life.

NASA’s 2020 rover is the first spacecraft designed to save up rock and soil samples for collection during a follow-up Mars mission. Once the samples are gathered up, the follow-up spacecraft would launch from the Martian surface and shoot those samples back to Earth.

George Tahu, Mars 2020 program executive, says the rover has “fully taken shape over the past several months” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Even the sample caching system is ready to go. “All that’s missing is a great name,” he said.

The naming contest is open to U.S. students from kindergarten to 12th grade. By Nov. 1, entrants should submit their proposed rover name, plus an essay that runs no longer than 150 words and explains why their name should be chose.

NASA will divide the essays into three groups by grade level – K-4, 5-8 and 9-12 – and have them judged based on appropriateness, the significance and originality of the name, and the originality and quality of their essay and/or interview presentation.

Fifty-two semifinalists will be chosen in each of the three categories, representing U.S. states and territories. (Some locales, such as South Carolina and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are lumped together.) Three finalists will be selected from each category to go on to the finals.

The winner is due to be announced next Feb. 18 – exactly a year before the rover’s scheduled landing.

NASA is also looking for volunteers to help judge the thousands of entries that are expected to pour in. If you’re a U.S. resident over the age of 18 with at least five hours to spare, you can sign up to become a judge via the Future Engineers website.

The contest is being run under the terms of a Space Act Agreement involving NASA, Future Engineers and Battelle. It follows the basic model that was set in 2003 for the twin Mars Expedition Rovers. The names Spirit and Opportunity were suggested by 9-year-old Sofi Collis, who was born in Siberia and adopted at the age of 2 by a family in Arizona.

“I used to live in an orphanage,” Collis wrote in her essay. “It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there, in America. I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Opportunity.’ ”

NASA’s Curiosity rover was given its name by 12-year-old Clara Ma, a sixth-grader from Kansas. “Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone’s mind,” Ma wrote in her essay. “It makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me that day. Curiosity is such a powerful force. Without it, we wouldn’t be who we are today.”

If you’re eligible to enter the contest, those essays just might kindle a spark of inspiration. And even if you’re not eligible, you can still put a name on the 2020 Mars rover: your own.

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