A rover named Curiosity

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Mars rover that will be carrying two instruments from Los Alamos National Laboratory has a name.

In a national competition, Clara Ma, a sixth-grader from Kansas submitted the winning entry, “Curiosity.” She wins a trip to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

NASA made the announcement Thursday, noting that the name was chosen from over 9,000 suggestions and took into account the essays that accompanied the proposals.

“I was really interested in space, but I thought space was something I could only read about in books and look at during the night from so far away,” Ma said. “I thought that I would never be able to get close to it, so for me, naming the Mars rover would at least be one step closer.”

“Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone’s mind. It makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me that day,” Ma wrote in her winning essay.

“Curiosity is such a powerful force. Without it, we wouldn’t be who we are today. Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder.”

Disney-Pixar’s animated film “WALL-E.” was a partner in sponsoring the contest open to 5-to-18 year-olds in U.S. schools.

“We have been eager to call the rover by name,” said Pete Theisinger, who manages the JPL team building and testing Curiosity. In NASA’s announcement, he said “Giving it a name worthy of this mission’s quest means a lot to the people working on it.”

Curiosity, known formerly as the Mars Science Laboratory, is a size or two larger and will have many more analytic resources than the previous mobile robots sent to the Red Planet.

Of the current two rovers, Opportunity is still roving, after five years on Mars, having recently filed dispatches on its exploration of Victoria Crater, and Spirit has been stuck in the sand for the past month on the other side of the planet. According to NASA updates, Spirit is beginning to show signs of what might be called old age.

Roger Wiens, principle investigator for ChemCam, the remote-sensing laser instrument that will be on the mast of Curiosity, said he liked the name because it in line with the two current robot explorers, and the one before that, Sojourner.

He said he could relate to Clara Ma, about only being able to read about space in books at night.

“That was my situation, too,” he said. “At my sixth grade graduation someone said I’d be the first person to go to Mars. It was a big laugh at the time, but here I am.”

David Vaniman is the deputy principal investigator for CheMin, an X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence instrument that will enable on-the-spot chemical analysis of certain minerals. He was in an all day conference call related to the project Monday morning, but he got an email out saying he liked the name, too.

Curiosity is now scheduled to launch in 2011 and head for an area considered most favorable for finding signs of life that might have existed at one time on Mars.

The Los Alamos Instruments will be useful for identifying minerals associated with water and other chemical components considered necessary for life.