The next NASA rover to go to Mars has shed its code name and assumed a new one, sourced from the ingenuous youth of our nation. Keeping with the tradition of using virtues as names, the Mars 2020 rover will henceforth be known as "Perseverance."
This particular virtue was suggested by Alexander Mather, a middle-schooler in Virginia. He and some 28,000 other kids proposed names in an essay contest last year. The final nine contenders were: Endurance, Tenacity, Promise, Vision, Clarity, Ingenuity, Fortitude, Courage and, of course the winner, Perseverance.
The name is perhaps the most apropos, with the possible exception of Endurance, given the track record of Mars rovers vastly outliving their official mission length. Like some kind of scientific Gilligan's Island, Opportunity famously set out for a 90-day tour of the Martian surface and ended up trundling around for over 14 years before finally losing power for good during a planet-scale sandstorm.
These rovers don't just keep going effortlessly, of course; the teams must constantly exert their ingenuity to rescue, redirect and reprogram the distant robotic platforms. It was this aspect that seems to have caught the space agency's eye.
"Like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it’s going to make amazing discoveries. It’s already surmounted many obstacles to get us to the point where we are today," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, in a news release. "Alex and his classmates are the Artemis Generation, and they’re going to be taking the next steps into space that lead to Mars. That inspiring work will always require perseverance."
The kid, Mather, didn't just do this as some in-class activity mass-emailed by the teacher. He went to space camp in 2018 and had his mind blown by the Saturn V rocket he saw there. Now, having won the naming contest, he'll get to go with his family to Cape Canaveral to watch the rover launch this summer.
"This was a chance to help the agency that put humans on the Moon and will soon do it again," Mather said. "This Mars rover will help pave the way for human presence there and I wanted to try and help in any way I could. Refusal of the challenge was not an option."
In acknowledgement of the other kids who entered the contest, Perseverance will be equipped with a chip inscribed with the 8 semifinalists' names, as well as 155 more semi-finalists' proposals — in letters a thousandth the width of a human hair, but still.
We'll have more coverage of the mission as launch time approaches, but in the meantime you can keep up with the latest at the obligatory and always delightful first-person-rover Twitter account.