NASA's Deep Space 2 microprobes, due to smash into the surface of Mars near the planet's south pole on Dec. 3, have been named Amundsen and Scott in honor of the first explorers to reach the South Pole of Earth.
Paul Withers, a graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, wrote the winning essay in a public contest to name the ambitious space mission. His was among a NASA-record 17,000 entries submitted.
"A century ago, Antarctica was the Earth's only unexplored continent. Then expeditions led by Amundsen and Scott landed there, striving to discover its secrets, seeking knowledge, and finding a land of stark beauty," wrote Withers, who studies the thin upper atmosphere of Mars. "Scott perished in Antarctica. His memorial's inscription reads: 'To strive, to seek, to find, not to yield.' These are aims of the Deep Space 2."
Norwegian Roald Amundsen explored the Northwest Passage before leading the first successful expedition to the South Pole, reaching it on Dec. 14, 1911. Robert Falcon Scott led an English team to the South Pole in January 1912, only to discover the national flag left during Amundsen's earlier arrival. Although blizzards and starvation claimed Scott and his entire team on their return trip, a search party found the team's scientifically valuable diaries and notebooks.
The main purpose of NASA's miniature probes is technical, not scientific: flight-testing advanced technology that could be used by future planetary surface microlanders. Constructed to survive an abrupt impact at 644 kilometers (400 miles) per hour with the layered terrain common in the south polar region of Mars, the two Deep Space 2 probes also carry sensors to search for the presence of water ice about three feet below the surface, as a secondary goal.
"Deep Space 2 joins Mars Polar Lander as the first missions to venture to the south pole of Mars, so it's only fitting to name the microprobes after the two explorers who first set foot on Earth's South Pole," said Deep Space 2 Project Manager Sarah Gavit. "Like Amundsen and Scott, Deep Space 2 will have to survive great odds, including not only braving the elements but also crashing into the terrain with unbelievable force."
A gift certificate for CompUSA merchandise worth $4,000 will go to Withers. The prize, provided by Lockheed Martin Corp., the Boeing Co. and CompUSA, will go directly from the donating companies to the winner. The top 25 finalists will receive one copy each of a Deep Space 2 poster signed by project team leaders.
Participants in the contest were instructed to choose two people from history (not living), characters from mythology or fiction, two places or things in some way associated with each other, or a combination of the above elements. Submissions had to be accompanied by a short written composition of up to 100 words explaining why the entries would make good names for the probes. This essay was used as the tiebreaker if more than one person submitted the same pair of names, which happened in the case of the winning submission.
The Deep Space 2 probes are piggybacking on NASA's Mars Polar Lander spacecraft, which was launched on Jan. 3, 1999. Each probe has an entry system consisting of a basketball-sized aeroshell with a grapefruit-sized probe inside. Released from the cruise stage of the Mars Polar Lander on Dec. 3 before it enters the atmosphere of Mars, the probes will dive toward the surface with no braking system beyond their cone-shaped exterior surface. Unlike any spacecraft before them, the probes must endure impact forces up to 60,000 times the force of Earth's gravity as they hit the surface.
Upon impact, the aeroshell will shatter and the forebody of each probe will bury itself up to about one meter (three feet) underground, while the aftbody remains on the surface to transmit data back to Earth through NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. If successful, Deep Space 2 will demonstrate innovative approaches to entering a planet's atmosphere, surviving a crash-like impact and penetrating below a planet's surface.
The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.
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