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NASA Names First Rover to Explore the Surface of Mars

On the 30th anniversary of robotic exploration of Mars, NASA selected the name "Sojourner" for the first rover slated to explore the Red Planet. The 11.3-kg (25-lb), six-wheeled robotic explorer is now being readied for launch on Mars Pathfinder. It will be deployed to roam across an ancient Martian flood plain on July 4, 1997, after the lander touches down on the planet's surface.

Thirty years ago, the U.S. spacecraft Mariner 4 initiated humanity's study of the Red Planet by flying by Mars at a distance of about 6,000 miles. On July 14, 1965, it took the first close-up images of another planet.

The name Sojourner was chosen after a year-long, worldwide competition in which students up to 18 years old were invited to select a heroine and submit an essay about her historical accomplishments. In their essays, students were asked to address how a planetary rover named for their heroine would translate those accomplishments to the Martian environment.


The contest was initiated in March 1994 by The Planetary Society of Pasadena, California, in cooperation with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), with an announcement in the January 1995 issue of Science and Children, a magazine published by the National Science Teachers Association and circulated to 20,000 teachers and schools nationwide.

Valerie Ambroise, 12, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, submitted the winning essay about Sojourner Truth, an African-American reformist who lived during the Civil War era. An abolitionist and champion of women's rights, Sojourner Truth-whose legal name was Isabella Van Wagener-made it her mission to "travel up and down the land," advocating the rights of all people to be free and the rights of women to participate fully in society. The name Sojourner was selected because it means "traveler."

JPL scientists and engineers from the Mars Pathfinder project and Planetary Society staff members reviewed 3,500 entries from all over the world, including essays from students living in Canada, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Poland, and Russia. Nearly 1,700 essays were submitted by 5- to 18-year-old students. JPL's selection of winners from this group was based on several factors-the quality and creativity of the essay, considering the age of each contestant; the appropriateness of the name for a Mars rover; and the knowledge of the heroine and understanding of the Pathfinder rover's mission conveyed in the essay.

The second place prize winner was Deepti Rohatgi, 18, of Rockville, Maryland, who proposed naming the rover after Marie Curie, a Polish-born chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1911 for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. Third place went to Adam Sheedy, 16, of Round Rock, Texas, who chose the late astronaut Judith Resnik as his namesake for the new rover.

Other popular names included Sacajewea, who explored North America with Lewis and Clark; Amelia Earhart, one of the first female aviators; Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom; Harriet Tubman, a 19th-century African-American writer and political reformist; Greek goddesses Minerva and Atalanta; and Thumbelina, the tiny fairy tale character created by Hans Christian Andersen.


The Mars Pathfinder lander and rover will be launched in December 1996 aboard a Delta rocket and spend seven months cruising to Mars. The mission will demonstrate a new, low-cost way of entering a planetary atmosphere and landing, through a combination of parachutes, rockets, and shock-absorbing airbags designed to slow the spacecraft's descent and place it safely on the surface. Once Mars Pathfinder lands and opens its exterior panels, the solar-powered rover will be sent off to explore the chemistry of rocks in the area and other features of the planet's rocky surface.