First came Sojourner. Then Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity followed. And now there's Perseverance.
NASA unveiled the name for the next Mars rover on Thursday, the culmination of the agency's "Name the Rover" essay contests that kicked off last August.
The winning name was sent in by Alexander Mather, a seventh grade student at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia.
"Alex's entry captured the spirit of exploration," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate,said in a statement. "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 - processing for launch."
The rocket that will carry Perseverance is slated to launch to Mars this summer from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The 2,300-pound rover is subsequently expected to land at Jezero Crater on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021.
The rover is designed to search for signs of past microbial life on Mars and will also study the planet's climate and geology. The mission involves collecting Martian rocks and dust for a separate future expedition that aims to return these samples to Earth.
Zurbuchen said the upcoming rover mission is a crucial part of the agency's Artemis Program, which aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, before journeying beyond to Mars.
"Alex and his classmates are the Artemis Generation, and they're going to be taking the next steps into space that lead to Mars," he said in the statement. "That inspiring work will always require perseverance. We can't wait to see that nameplate on Mars."
NASA's naming contest attracted more than 28,000 entries from students in kindergarten through 12th grade from every U.S. state and territory, according to the agency. Nearly 4,700 volunteer judges that included educators and space enthusiasts around the country helped select 155 semifinalists and then nine finalists. The winning entry was then selected through an online public poll that recorded 770,000 votes over the course of five days.
Mather said his participation was a way to help NASA in its bid to return astronauts to the lunar surface.
"This Mars rover will help pave the way for human presence there, and I wanted to try and help in any way I could," Mather said in a statement. "Refusal of the challenge was not an option."
NASA said Mather and his family will be invited to Florida to witness the rover's launch this summer.
The Perseverance rover joins a rich history of NASA spacecraft named by school-age children. The Sojourner rover, which landed on Mars in 1997, the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on the Red Planet in 2004, and Curiosity, which touched its wheels down on Mars in 2012, were all named after nationwide contests.