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Mars Science Lab Team Picks “Fab Four”; Naming Contest Debuts

After what sounded like some pretty exhilarating deliberations back in September, JPL announced today the final four candidate sites for landing the Mars Science Lab, NASA’s next big rover bound for the red planet.

Sayonara, Miyamoto. Farewell, Nili Fossae. And so long South Meridiani. These three of the seven under consideration were voted off the proverbial island.

That leaves proponents of Eberswalde Crater, Gale Crater, Holden Crater, and Mawrth Vallis to duke it out and name a winner in time for the lab’s planned fall 2009 launch.


A false-color map of Mars shows the four candidate landing sites for the lab as well as the positions of NASA’s current and previous missions to Mars.

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Each remaining site has it’s own unique set of features and local geology that would provide the roving lab with a different set of challenges.

Eberswalde in the south is thought to be where a river once flowed into a lake, and its clay-bearing delta might offer clues to whether Mars has the kind of carbon-based chemistry that could have supported life as we know it.

Holden is also in the south but is marked by gullies and alluvial fans that suggest some major floodage in Mars’s watery past.

Gale, near the equator, has a mountain inside that’s layered with different minerals and so could serve as a type of vertical textbook for Mars’s geochemical history.

Finally, Mawrth—the only valley among the four—exhibits different types of clays layered together that could offer clues to how water has impacted Martian geochemistry over time.

I don’t envy the science teams who have to make their final cases for their landing site of choice, it’ll be a tough call.

Luckily for the rest of us—or at least those of us between the ages of 5 and 18—the science lab team is also running a slightly less technical contest: coming up with a name for the rover.

Back in 2003 the Planetary Society teamed up with Lego to solicit names for the Mars Exploration Rovers. It was a charming 9-year-old from Arizona who wrote the winning essay, forever emblazoning the hardy rovers with the monikers Spirit and Opportunity.


Contest winner Sofi Collis stands with a model of one of the Mars rovers

—Image courtesy NASA

This time NASA has partnered with the Disney-Pixar film WALL·E to run a similar contest for naming the science lab. You can read the full rules and submit entries here.

Clearly I miss the age limit by quite a bit, but my kid-at-heart has a few ideas:

  • T’Plana-Hath, the Vulcan science vessel that made first contact with humans in Star Trek lore
  • Milky Way, as in the delicious chocolatey product of Mars, Inc.—think of the sponsorship opportunities!
  • Cliff Clavin, Jr., the fictional Cheers character played by John Ratzenberger, who has provided a voice for every Pixar movie and has been dubbed the company’s good luck charm
  • Nemo, the plucky little clownfish that’s perhaps Pixar’s most beloved character to date



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