On the 30th anniversary of Mars exploration, NASA has selected the name "Sojourner" for the first rover to explore the planet. The 11.5-kilogram (25-pound), six-wheeled robotic explorer is now being readied for launch, and will roam across an ancient Martian flood plain after its companion lander, Mars Pathfinder, touches down on the surface on July 4, 1997.
The U.S. spacecraft Mariner 4 ushered in the beginnings of humanity's detailed exploration of the Red Planet 30 years ago today when it flew by Mars at a distance of about 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) on July 14, 1965, taking the first closeup images of another planet.
The name Sojourner was chosen for the Mars Pathfinder rover after a year-long, worldwide competition in which students up to 18 years old were invited to select a heroine and submit an essay about her historical accomplishments. The students were asked to address in their essays how a rover named for their heroine would translate these accomplishments to the Martian environment.
Initiated in March 1994 by The Planetary Society of Pasadena, Calif., in cooperation with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the contest got under way with an announcement in the January 1995 issue of the National Science Teachers Association's magazine "Science and Children," which is circulated to 20,000 teachers and schools across the nation.
Valerie Ambroise, 12, of Bridgeport, Conn., submitted the winning essay about Sojourner Truth, an African-American reformist who lived during the tumultuous era of the U.S. Civil War. An abolitionist and champion of women's rights, Sojourner Truth, whose legal name was Isabella Van Wagener, made it her mission to "travel up and down the land," advocating the rights of all people to be free and the rights of women to participate fully in society. The name Sojourner was selected because it means "traveler."
JPL scientists and engineers working on the Mars Pathfinder project and Planetary Society staff members reviewed the 3,500 total entries received from all over the world, including essays from students living in Canada, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Poland and Russia. Nearly 1,700 of the essays were submitted by students aged 5 to 18 years old and met all of the qualifying criteria.
The selection of winners from this group by representatives of JPL and NASA Headquarters was based on several factors: the quality and creativity of the essay, taking into consideration the age of each contestant; the appropriateness of the name for a Mars rover; and the knowledge and understanding of the Pathfinder rover's mission conveyed in each essay.
The second place prize winner was Deepti Rohatgi, 18, of Rockville, Md., who proposed naming the rover after Marie Curie, a Polish-born chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1911 for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. The third place prize goes to Adam Sheedy, 16, of Round Rock, Texas, who chose the late astronaut Judith Resnik as his namesake for the new rover.
Other popular names included Sacajewea, who explored North America with Lewis and Clark; Amelia Earhart, one of the first female aviators; Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom; Harriet Tubman, a 19th-century African-American writer and political reformist; Greek goddesses Minerva and Atalanta; and Thumbelina, the tiny fairy tale character created by Hans Christian Andersen.
The Mars Pathfinder lander and rover will be launched in December 1996 aboard a Delta rocket and then will spend seven months cruising to Mars. The mission will demonstrate a new, lowcost way of entering a planetary atmosphere and landing through a combination of parachutes, rockets and shock-absorbing airbags designed to slow the spacecraft's descent and place it safely on the surface. Once Pathfinder lands and opens its exterior petals, the solar-powered rover will be sent off to explore the chemistry of rocks in the area and other features of the planet's rocky surface.
Mars Pathfinder is part of NASA's Discovery program, a new generation of low-cost spacecraft designed to explore the solar system. The mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA's Office of Space Science and Office of Space Access and Technology, Washington, D.C.