We don't have to call it "Mars 2020" anymore.
NASA's next Mars rover — a life-hunting, sample-caching robot scheduled to launch this summer — is officially called Perseverance, agency officials announced today (March 5).
The new name suits the car-size rover and its groundbreaking mission nicely, NASA officials said.
"There has never been exploration — never, never been making history — without perseverance," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said during a name-unveiling ceremony today.
"Perseverance is a strong word," he added. "It's about making progress despite obstacles."
The kids are all right
Like all of NASA's previous Mars rovers, Perseverance was named via a nationwide student competition. The contest kicked off last year and drew 28,000 essay submissions from K-12 students, NASA officials said.
This huge initial pool was culled to 155 semifinalists, which were whittled further to nine finalists this past January. Those nine included three proposals from each of the three age categories (grades K-4, 5-8 and 9-12). The finalist monikers, and the kids who proposed them, were:
- Endurance, K-4, Oliver Jacobs of Virgina.
- Tenacity, K-4, Eamon Reilly of Pennsylvania.
- Promise, K-4, Amira Shanshiry of Massachusetts.
- Perseverance, 5-8, Alexander Mather of Virginia.
- Vision, 5-8, Hadley Green of Mississippi.
- Clarity, 5-8, Nora Benitez of California.
- Ingenuity, 9-12, Vaneeza Rupani of Alabama.
- Fortitude, 9-12, Anthony Yoon of Oklahoma.
- Courage, 9-12, Tori Gray of Louisiana.
NASA encouraged the public to vote for their favorite of these final nine, but the decision ultimately was made by Zurbuchen.
As the proposer of the winning name, Mather, a seventh grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, will get a free trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to watch Perseverance launch in July.
Mather read his winning essay during today's event and said he has a love of space and science that he plans to carry through his entire life.
"I want to go to college, get a degree in some form of engineering or science — space engineering and astronautics sound good right now," he said today. "And then, after that, go work at NASA as an engineer."
Looking for signs of life
Perseverance will land inside Mars' 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater in February 2021, kicking off a $2.5 billion mission to search for signs of ancient Red Planet life — the first time a NASA surface craft has actively hunted for possible Martians since the twin Viking landers did so from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s.
Jezero is a great place to do this work, NASA officials have stressed. The crater harbored a lake and a river delta billions of years ago, meaning that life could have both flourished there and left lasting evidence of its existence. (Here on Earth, river deltas are great at preserving biosignatures, mission team members have said.)
The rover will look for signs of life on-site, using its powerful seven-instrument suite. But Perseverance will also collect and cache several dozen samples of pristine, promising Mars material for future return to Earth, where scientists can continue the hunt using advanced equipment in labs around the world. Those samples could be here as early as 2031, if all goes according to plan.
Perseverance will do a variety of other work as well, from characterizing Jezero's geology to helping pave the way for human exploration of Mars, which NASA aims to achieve in the 2030s. For example, the rover has a ground-penetrating radar instrument that will look for deposits of subsurface water ice — a valuable resource for astronaut pioneers. And another instrument will demonstrate the production of oxygen from the thin, carbon dioxide-dominated Martian atmosphere.
That's not the only technology demonstration flying on the mission. Perseverance is also carrying a small helicopter scout, which will make brief sorties to show that rotorcraft can indeed explore the Red Planet air.
Perseverance also has 23 cameras and two microphones, potentially allowing us to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time ever. (Two previous NASA Mars craft, the Mars Polar Lander and the Phoenix lander, also carried microphones. But the Mars Polar Lander crashed, and Phoenix's microphone was never turned on.)
A naming tradition
NASA has let schoolkids name all of its Red Planet rovers to date.
NASA's first-ever wheeled Mars explorer, Sojourner, was deployed from the Pathfinder lander in July 1997. Sojourner was named by Connecticut 12-year-old Valerie Ambroise in honor of 19th-century abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth.
Sofi Collis, a third grader from Arizona, won the competition to name Spirit and Opportunity, twin NASA rovers that landed on Mars three weeks apart in January 2004. And the car-size Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the Red Planet's Gale Crater since August 2012, was named by Kansas sixth grader Clara Ma.
Perseverance's body is modeled on that of Curiosity, and the new rover will employ the same sky-crane descent and landing system as its predecessor. And the link between the two missions goes deeper than that; Perseverance aims to extend work done by Curiosity, which determined that Gale Crater was capable of supporting Earth-like life long ago.
Zurbuchen acknowledged the ties between the two missions and stressed that their names go together well, too.
"Perseverance and curiosity together are what exploration is all about," he said.
- Mars 2020: The Red Planet's next rover
- Life on Mars: Exploration & evidence
- Photos: Ancient Mars lake could have supported life
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
All About Space magazine takes you on an awe-inspiring journey through our solar system and beyond, from the amazing technology and spacecraft that enables humanity to venture into orbit, to the complexities of space science.