Ever Upward

      Seventh-grader Amelia Ashley of Owings loves comets, even though she’s never seen one. This space-obsessed Northern Middle School student may soon be a part of a mission to another celestial object she’s never actually seen. 

     Amelia is one of 155 students recently named semifinalists in the NASA Mars 2020 Name the Rover contest. Just one will be selected to win the grand prize—the honor of naming the rover and an invitation to see the spacecraft launch in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

     The currently unnamed rover is a robotic scientist weighing more than 2,300 pounds. It will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for a future return to Earth and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

    “This rover is the first leg of a round-trip mission to Mars that will advance understanding in key science fields like astrobiology,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “This contest is a cool way to engage the next generation and encourage careers in all STEM fields. The chosen name will help define this rover’s unique personality among our fleet of Martian spacecraft.”

     Amelia chose the name Excelsior for the rover “because it means ‘ever upward’ in Latin,” she wrote in her essay. “The rover is going to be sent to explore the surface of Mars, gather data and samples, and better prepare us to land humans on Mars someday. No one has ever landed a manned spacecraft on Mars, and that would be a step upward in scientific progress. Also, the rover is going to try to find out if there was ever life on Mars, which would be another step up for scientific research. This mission is helping to pave the way for scientific breakthroughs such as landing a manned spacecraft on Mars, of discovering signs of life there.”

      Amelia is quick to point out that even if she doesn’t win the contest, her name will be on the rover anyway, thanks to NASA’s Send Your Name to Mars program. “My whole family’s name is on a chip inside the rover,” she said. “But to know that I named the rover itself [would be] very cool. It was a no-brainer to enter the contest.”

     Amelia’s mother, Cyndi Ashley, was the one to discover the contest while browsing a NASA website. 

     “Amelia has always been a creative, passionate, academically-oriented girl. It’s no surprise that she is curious about and amazed by what lies beyond our world. She loves gazing at the night sky. We were online at NASA Kids’ Club and stumbled upon the contest. As soon as Amelia saw it, she announced that she wanted to enter and came up with a name in a matter of seconds.”

     The next phases of judging will reduce the competition to nine finalists, and the public will have an opportunity to vote for their favorite name online in late January. The results will be a consideration in the final naming selection. The nine finalists will talk with a panel of experts, including Glaze, NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins, NASA JPL rover driver Nick Wiltsie and Clara Ma, who proposed the name for the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, as a sixth-grade student in 2009. The grand prize winner will be announced in early March 2020.

     Amelia says that she is excited and nervous as she waits for the final selection. “I’m trying to not get my hopes up too high. But I really want to win so I can fly to see the launch at Cape Canaveral this summer.”