NASA is making the fantastical a tangible thing. They have announced that they will launch the Mars 2020 rover next year. With this launch, we, the public, can make interstellar history. You can send your name to Mars! NASA will be attaching a microchip to the Mars rover that will contain the names of anyone who signs up. 

“We want everyone to share in this journey of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington DC, in a press release. “It’s an exciting time for NASA, as we embark on this voyage to answer profound questions about our neighboring planet and even the origins of life itself.”

Dreams

This artist's conception depicts a new planet orbiting its sun.
ESA, NASA, and L. Calcada (ESO for STScI) - Hubble Directly Observes Planet Orbiting Fomalhaut
This artist’s conception depicts a new planet orbiting its sun.
ESANASA, and L. Calcada (ESO for STScI) – Hubble Directly Observes Planet Orbiting Fomalhaut

As a kid, I would sit outside, looking up at the stars and moon. I wondered what it would be like to travel through space and time. I imagined what it would feel like to walk on other planets. Was passing through constellations and galaxies like being on a carnival ride? Were there really little green men out there? Or anything out there for that matter? You may have imagined the same or similar things. Maybe you dreamed of making your mark, not just in this world but in other universes. You might have dreamed of being a hero of the universe, a veritable Dr. Who (or at the very least, Dr. Who’s companion).  

The “would be” astronomer in me is geeking out over the prospect of my name being able to fly through space and actually land on Mars. And judging from the over 5 million people who have already signed up at the time of this article, I am not alone. And yes, I did submit my name. I don’t quite know what it is about us humans. We love seeing our names displayed, even if it’s not our own actual name. It can be a shared surname and we get excited.

My family took vacations every summer when I was a child. My dad had a ritual regardless of where we traveled. He would scour the local telephone book looking for any La Grange’s or Doucet’s (my mother’s maiden name). It wasn’t often he would find either. But when he did, we were very happy. It was as though we shared a common bond with these strangers.

Leave a Legacy: Send Your Name to Mars

I imagine a future when humans are landing on Mars, finding the microchip. That is a wonderful legacy to leave for the future! I envision them marveling over the names. Maybe they will find their surnames. They may wonder at the number of people who dreamed a dream that they are now living. I equate it to when people visit Ellis Island. People scan the American Immigration Wall of Honor for their ancestors. We do it for any monument listing names to honor/memorialize individuals. 

A name may seem like a trivial thing to get excited about sending off to space. It’s just a string of letters strung together to identify who we are. However, our names become a part of our identity. Our names carry the history of our ancestors and the legacy of our descendants. Our names become an entity onto itself. What better way to space travel for the time being, than to send your name to Mars. Until science allows our bodies to catch up, send your name to Mars.

A Ticket to Mars

Send Your Name to Mars Ticket
Send Your Name to Mars ticket

To be a part of this planetary expedition, go to https://go.nasa.gove/Mars2020Pass. Fill out a short form to submit your name. NASA will be accepting submissions until September 30, 2019. NASA has indicated that the Mars 2020 Rover may have more than one microchip. There are four months left to collect names. Currently, the tally surpasses that of InSight. It seems reasonably certain it will be more than one microchip.

It is reported that the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA will use an electron beam to etch the names submitted on a microchip. The names will be in text that is less than 0.1% the thickness of human hair. 

NASA ran a similar campaign when InSight (the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) landed on Mars in November 2018. It took two microchips containing more than 2 million names. One famous name it carried was of William Shatner, who is well known for his role as Captain James T. Kirk of the original Star Trek television series and movies. 

In addition to having your appellation soaring through the heavens to the Red Planet, you will receive a souvenir boarding pass. It will have your name, destination, and yes, even “frequent flyer” points, albeit theoretical. The points are more than 3 million miles (excess of 5 million kilometers). 

Mission

While we still cannot physically go to Mars and walk the Red Planet for ourselves, this mission brings us a little bit closer to making that a reality. The mission objectives, as stated by NASA in their press release, are to search for past microbial life, explore the geology and the climate of the red rock, collect samples with the intent of bringing them back to Earth on later missions. NASA hopes that this mission will lay the groundwork for astronauts to travel to Mars eventually. 

To assist in accomplishing these goals, NASA indicates that the rover will land on Jezero Crater,  a 28-mile wide area that once harbored a river delta in the far distant past. According to NASA, the river delta structure suggests that water filled and drained at least twice. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has identified minerals that have been chemically altered by water. 

Mars 2020 Rover

Send your name to Mars on the Mars 202 rover. PIA22105: NASA's Mars 2020 Rover Artist's Concept #2 This artist's rendition depicts NASA's Mars 2020 rover studying a Mars rock outrcrop.  For more information about the mission, go to https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/.
This artist’s rendition depicts NASA’s Mars 2020 rover studying a Mars rock outcrop. For more information about the mission, go to https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/

The Mars 2020 rover, which does not have an official name yet, is expected to launch in July or August 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The timing of the launch is to coincide when the position of Earth and Mars are in such a way as to require the least amount of power in interplanetary travel. Favorable alignments of Earth and Mars for planetary missions occur just once every 26 months. 

The 2020 rover is car-sized, coming in at about 10 feet long (not including the arm) 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall. At 2,314 pounds it weighs less than a compact car. The design is similar to that of Curiosity, the rover that landed on Mars in August 2012. Like Curiosity, Mars 2020 will use a heat shield, parachute and “sky crane” platform that hovers using rockets while lowering the rover to the surface on cables.  

“The fact that so much of the hardware has already been designed—or even already exists—its a major advantage for this mission, “ Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said. “It saves us money, time, and most of all reduces risks.”

Instruments

An artist concept image of where seven carefully-selected instruments will be located on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Along with the instruments, you can have NASA send your name to Mars on this rover.
An artist concept image of where seven carefully-selected instruments will be located on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

NASA has stated that the payload of the Mars 2020 rover is less massive than that of Curiosity. Scientists expect the new instruments to be more capable. The instruments that the Mars 2020 rover will be sporting are as follows, as per NASA release: 

Mars Core Sample Cache—can drill up to 31 small, cylindrical core samples from rocks and store them for possible retrieval by a future mission

MOXIE—The Mars Oxygen In-situ resource utilization Experiment will ingest the toxic Martian air and produce breathable oxygen from the carbon dioxide it contains. MOXIE is a proof-of-concept device, pointing the way for future astronauts’ life support systems on Mars.

Supercam and Mastcam-Z: the mast mounted Supercam images the surface to analyze the chemical composition and mineralogy of the rocks. Supercam also detects the presence of organic compounds from a distance. Mastcam Z is a 3D camera with a zoom capability.

PXL sensor head: The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) is an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer for examining the fine scale elemental composition of the Martian surface. 

RIMFAX— The Radar Imager for MARS Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX) is a ground-penetrating radar providing centimeter scale resolution for the geologic structure beneath Mars’ surface.

SHERLOC—The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence of Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) spectroscope scans the ground with a laser to detect organic chemicals

MEDA—A small mast atop the rover contains a set of sensors called the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) measuring temperature, wind speed, and direction, pressure, relative humidity, and the size and shape of windblown dust particles.

Improvements before Launch

The wheels will be improved. Curiosity’s wheels cracked on the Mars rough terrain. Engineers expect to design sturdier wheels for the new rover. 

A ground penetrating radar will be the first instrument to look under the surface of Mars. It will map layers of rock, water, and ice up to 30 feet deep.

Mars 2020 will also carry two microphones that will relay the sounds of the Red Planet back to earth. NASA stated that past missions replicated senses of sight, touch, and taste through robotic means. Now they are adding hearing to complete all five senses.

A NASA memo indicated two previous missions landers had microphones. However, on the Mars Polar Lander, it failed. On the Phoenix Lander, the mic was never turned on.  

Moon to Mars Mission

The Mars 2020 rover is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars program. According to NASA, they are working with U.S. companies and international partners, to expand exploration of Mars and the Moon.

And you can be a part too. Remember the deadline to send your name to Mars is Sept. 30, 2019. I’m going, are you?

More Mission Information

For more information on Mars 2020 visit:
https://www.nasa.gov/mars2020

For more on the Moon to Mars plans, visit:
https://www.nasa.gov/topics/moon-to-mars

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