Twelve-year-old Clara Ma, a Kansas elementary school student, named the rover "Curiosity." Her suggestion was chosen from more than 9,000 proposals entered in a naming contest. Clara will get to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and sign her name on the rover while it's assembled. The rover is scheduled for launch in two years.
Clara submitted the winning essay entry after hearing about the contest at the Sunflower Elementary school in Lenexa, Kan. The panel chose Clara's entry based on the name and the essay, which reflects the girl's interest in science as well as a flair for writing.
"Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone's mind," Clara wrote in the 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. 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."
Her entry stood out among thousands submitted by students ages 5 through 18 in American schools.
"Students from every state suggested names for this rover," Mark Dahl, the mission's program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement released Wednesday. "That's testimony to the excitement Mars missions spark in our next generation of explorers. Many of the nominating essays were excellent and several of the names would have fit well. I am especially pleased with the choice, which recognizes something universally human and essential to science."
Clara said she's very interested in space but thought it was something she could only read about in books and ponder as she gazed up at the night sky.
"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," she said.
Now her signature will travel to the Red Planet on the largest and most sophisticated rover ever sent to Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory rover will search for clues that the environment around its landing area may have been able to support microbial life. It will sift through soil for minerals that signal the presence of water, and it will look for chemicals that are the building blocks of life.
"We have been eager to call the rover by name," Pete Theisinger, who manages the JPL team building and testing Curiosity, said in a statement. "Giving it a name worthy of this mission's quest means a lot to the people working on it."
NASA said that Disney-Pixar's animated film WALL-E partnered with the agency for the contest, and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures supplied prizes for 30 semifinalists. Nine finalists can write messages to be placed on one of Curiosity's microchips, which also will contain the names of thousands of people around the world who are submitting their names through the Internet.
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