NASA needs help naming rover

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By Roger Snodgrass

Hey kids, listen up!

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration needs your help to name a rover that’s going to Mars in October.

Right now it’s called the Mars Science Laboratory.

If you can come up with the coolest name: Game on.

NASA, in cahoots with Walt Disney Studio’s loveable star robot WALL-E, hopes you can do better. They want your ideas.

“As the rover comes together and begins to take shape, the whole team can’t wait to call it by name,” said John Klein, deputy project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory in an announcement about the contest.

The last two rovers were called Spirit and Opportunity. They were awesome. They were only supposed to last 90 days but here it is four years later and they are still trekking around on Mars.

Kids in Los Alamos may have a tiny advantage in this contest, because two very important parts of the new rover are connected with the laboratory.

Rover is about the size of a Mini-Cooper. It has six wheels like a car that hold its body. On top of that, a mast sticks up in the air, almost like a skinny neck. And on that mast there’s a four-inch-in-diameter eye sitting up there. It’s part of an instrument called ChemCam.

Roger Wiens, who has been working on that instrument, said the idea of ChemCam is that it’s going to be able to tell what kind of rocks there are in the area around the rover when it’s on Mars.

“It does that by shooting brief, but powerful laser bursts at these rocks,” he said. “It can blow away the dust and then vaporize a small amount of rock.”

By looking at how the light bounces out of that vapor, scientist back on Earth can tell what kind of rock it is.

NASA and a whole big team of scientists and engineers from all over the world are looking for any clues they can find about how much water Mars has and whether there’s there was or is a life-supporting environment.

Wiens said this rover is not like the first two rovers.

“They were plucky little rovers the size of golf carts,” he said. This rover is bigger and more powerful by comparison and it’s on its own. “No siblings,” Wiens, said.

ChemCam’s laser and camera were made in France. Some of the other instruments were made in Russia and Spain.

This month, scientists at LANL finished some laser tests in atmospheric conditions and temperatures like those on Mars. In one test, Wiens said, they shot out a window and bounced the laser off a mirror into another window where there were sample rocks to be tested, in order to simulate the conditions on Mars.

The rover will also carry CheMin, an X-ray defractometer that does mineralogy and was developed partially at LANL. CheMin is a built-in mini-lab that enables the rover to do on-the-spot characterization of many more kinds of minerals than the previous rovers.

Dave Vaniman, a co-principal investigator for CheMin pointed out that students named Spirit and Opportunity.

“NASA always encourages public participation,” he said.

He advised interested students to watch the animated video on the website that shows the landing and features the two instruments with Los Alamos roots.

This new rover will have four times the power and, as Vaniman said, “a lot of attitude.”

It is supposed to last for two years. But if the first rovers have endured ten times longer than expected, who know? The new rover could last ten years or more. Of course something unexpected could happen, too.

The contest is divided into three groups – grades K-3, 4-7 and 8-12, with slightly different requirements for each, but mainly a suggested name and an original essay about why it’s a great name.

The person whose name is selected wins WALL-E prizes, a free trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and gets to sign his or her name on the Rover that’s going to Mars. Thirty semi-finalists and nine finalists will also win prizes.

Give yourself a chance by following the rules. You can’t use any of the names for NASA’s current missions, for example, or the names of anybody living.

The contest is underway, but you have until Jan. 25 to enter. The winner will be announced in April 2009.

Check out the information, the videos and the contest rules on the web: http://marsrovername.jpl.nasa.gov.