Rover gets a curious name

“Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone's mind.” That is how 12-year-old Clara Ma's winning essay began and how she went from a normal sixth-grader at Sunflower Elementary School in Lenexa, Kan., to the star of the Mars Yard at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Clara won the Name the Rover essay contest and on Monday was introduced to the engineers and scientists who built and will control the Mars Science Laboratory rover, now named “Curiosity.” The rover is scheduled to launch in October 2011.

“I am really curious about space,” Clara said of her inspiration.

She learned about the contest from a Time For Kids magazine. The idea for the name came to her quickly, and she simply sat down and wrote.

“We didn't know she had entered the contest,” said Lisheng Cao, Clara's mom.

Both Cao and Clara's dad, Frank Ma, first heard about the contest when they received a call from NASA/JPL about their daughter being a finalist.

“I asked her if I could read her essay,” Cao said. “It was very good.”

Clara's sister Renny helped her with the editing and was at her side at JPL. Renny was allowed to name the test rover now called VSTB (Vehicle System Test Bed). The new name will be “Inspiration.”

The family was very excited when they learned that Clara won, but naming the rover was not the only thing JPL had planned for her. Suparna Mukherjee, engineer on the Mars Science Laboratory rover, treated Sunflower Elementary students to an assembly.

Cao said she and her husband support their children in everything they find interest in, and they were very proud Clara had entered the contest on her own.

Clara and her family were treated to a trip to Los Angeles where they visited the beach, Disneyland and Hollywood as well as a tour of JPL.

As of the January deadline, 9,000 essays had been submitted. JPL representatives narrowed that down to nine finalists.

A worldwide public poll was taken on those finalists, and Clara was announced the winner on May 27.

The JPL day included a trip to the lab's Mars Yard, a replica of the Martian surface where prototype rovers roll before their final version makes it to Mars.

Clara met engineers Julie Townsend and Mukherjee in addition to Jaime Waydo, lead mobility engineer.

Clara's name will be placed on the rover's belly pan. She visited the JPL clean room where she signed her name with a Sharpie marker on a plaque that will be placed on the rover.

“It was really exciting for me to get to name a rover,” Clara said. “To have something that is not going to be on our planet is amazing. And I get to sign a part of it.”

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