The campaign to name NASA's next Mars rover is now underway.
Yesterday (Aug. 27), the space agency began asking K-12 students around the United States to submit monikers for the life-hunting, sample-caching robotic explorer, which is currently known as Mars 2020.
The contest runs through Nov. 1, and the winner will be invited to attend the rover's launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in July 2020.
"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 statement.
"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," Bridenstine added.
Students participating in the contest must submit a short essay (150 words maximum) explaining why NASA should pick their proposed name for the car-size, 2,300-lb. (1,040 kilograms) Mars 2020. To enter or learn more, go to the official site for the naming contest.
"The essays will be divided into three groups, by grade level — K-4, 5-8 and 9-12 — and judged on the appropriateness, significance and originality of their proposed name, and the originality and quality of their essay, and/or finalist interview presentation," NASA officials wrote in the same statement. "Fifty-two semifinalists will be selected per group, each representing their respective state or U.S. territory. Three finalists then will be selected from each group to advance to the final round."
And speaking of judging, the space agency is looking for volunteers to do this initial name-vetting work. If you're a U.S. resident at least 18 years old who anticipates having 5 hours to spare in the coming months, you can register to be a judge here.
The final selection process will involve submitting the nine finalists to a public vote in January 2020, NASA officials said. The agency plans to announce the winner on Feb. 18, 2020, exactly one year before Mars 2020 is scheduled to touch down inside the Red Planet's Jezero Crater.
This contest is nothing new for NASA; the agency has a tradition of letting kids name Mars rovers. The Curiosity rover, for example, got its moniker about a decade ago from Clara Ma, then a Kansas sixth grader.
Mars 2020 is based heavily on Curiosity, which has been exploring the 96-mile-wide (154 km) Gale Crater since August 2012. The new rover sports the same chassis and the same "sky crane" landing system as its older cousin.
Curiosity's observations have shown that Mars was capable of supporting Earth-like life for long stretches in the ancient past. Mars 2020 will take additional steps in investigating that history, hunting for actual signs of long-dead microbes and collecting and caching samples for eventual return to Earth.
- Mars 2020: The Red Planet's Next Rover
- Amazing Mars Photos by NASA's Curiosity Rover
- Photos: Ancient Mars Lake Could Have Supported Life
Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.