Jan. 23, 2009 at 4:37 PM ET
NASA / JPL / Corby Waste
Hey, kids: Here's your last chance to name NASA's Mars Science Laboratory.
OK, kids: You have only one more weekend to come up with a name for NASA's next Mars rover. I've got some ideas, but it's up to you to write the essay and take this opportunity to make your mark on another planet. Although the contest is for kids only, even grown-ups can play a part in naming the Mars Science Laboratory - and you don't have to be a kid to enjoy the latest goodies from NASA's 5-year-old Red Planet rovers.
The naming contest is open to kids aged 5 to 18 who are registered students at U.S. schools. Your suggested name, plus an essay explaining the reason for the name, must be received by 11:59 p.m. ET Monday. Judges will sort through the entries and select nine finalists for consideration by the public in late March.
That's when the grown-ups have a say: A "Public Poll" will be posted on the contest Web site in late May, and the public input will be one of the factors used to determine the winning name. The grand prize is a three-day, two-night trip to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Disneyland for the winner plus up to three other family members.
JPL has the option of letting the winner sign his or her name on the rover itself. But NASA won't be obligated to use the name you come up with if it doesn't work out. Check out the contest rules for all the details.
If I were a kid again, I'd make a case for naming the darn thing Darwin. After all, the Mars Science Laboratory is built to roam around the Martian landscape and look for evidence that the planet was once potentially habitable. That blend of geology and biology would have been appealing to British naturalist Charles Darwin.
Another option would be to name the rover Beagle, after the ship that took Darwin on his famous voyage. (The name "Beagle 3" would pay tribute as well to Beagle 2, the European Mars lander that was lost in 2003.)
It's just too bad that the mission's launch had to be delayed. It would have been doubly fitting if the laboratory were sent out into space during the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of "On the Origin of Species."
The names that were given to NASA's twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have worked out better than I originally thought - and that's a tribute to Sofi Collis, who came up with those names when she was just 9 years old. In a similar high-flown vein, you could suggest:
But those are enough names from me ... feel free to add your own suggestions as comments below. There's no age limit. And while you meditate on your moniker, have a look at the latest 3-D picture from NASA's Opportunity rover, released just in time to mark the fifth anniversary of its landing.