Uwingu, a commercial venture that raises funds for space science, is following up on its exoplanet-naming campaign with a new effort that's closer to home: soliciting name suggestions for hundreds of thousands of Martian craters.
The "Uwingu Mars" database lets Internet users choose among roughly 500,000 scientifically cataloged but unnamed craters and register names. Prices depend on the size of the crater, starting at $5 a name.
"If we sell them all, we'll generate $10 million for the Uwingu Fund," which helps fund space science and education efforts such as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, said Alan Stern, the planetary scientist who founded Uwingu in 2012.
About 15,000 craters already have names approved by the International Astronomical Union, and those will be grandfathered onto Uwingu's list, Stern told NBC News. But it's common for other craters to get unofficial names — for example, Eagle Crater, where NASA's Opportunity rover landed 10 years ago.
"Mars rover drivers name everything in sight — they name rocks and hills and craters, without asking anybody's permission," Stern joked. Uwingu aims to extend that exercise to all comers.
Stern said names will be screened to rule out offensive, profane or pejorative terms — but otherwise, any namesake will be fair game. The same names may end up being attached to multiple craters, but Uwingu's grid-based mapping system is designed to keep them straight.
Uwingu generated an international controversy with its planet-naming project last year, and the Mars campaign could spark a similar debate. But Stern says it's fitting to let the public help fill out the blank spaces on the Martian map. He'd like to finish the job by 2015, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Mariner 4 probe's historic Mars flyby.
"We hope this map will be used by future explorers," he said.