In an essay contest very similar to the one that The Planetary Society and LEGO teamed up to run for the Mars Exploration Rovers, JPL has announced today that they are working with Disney to collect name suggestions for the Mars Science Laboratory rover, scheduled to launch next October. The contest is open only to children ages 5 through 18 who are residents of the U.S. and are enrolled in an American school in grades K-12. The grand prize winner gets a trip to Los Angeles, including, it seems, a trip to the Jet Propulsion Lab and Disneyland. The amount that the kid entrant has to write to support his or her name suggestion depends on what grade they're in: 50 words for grades K-3, 250 words for grades 4-7, and 500 words for grades 8-12. The deadline is January 25, 2009, and parents of preteens take note: all entries from kids under 14 have to be submitted by mail. Read the rules and find out how to enter at marsrovername.jpl.nasa.gov. Don't think your kid can't win because they're only 7 and competing against 17-year-olds; the previous contest was won by a 9-year-old.
This is a great opportunity for American kids to consider why and how spacecraft get named, and to learn enough about MSL to think about what a good name will be. If you're not American, I think it would still be a fun exercise to do with your children, even if they can't officially enter in the contest. Perhaps ESA will run something similar for ExoMars that will make such a naming opportunity open to a wider slice of the world. As one tiny bit of solace for non-Americans who'd like some chance for involvement, it appears based on some text on the contest homepage that there will be an Internet-based popularity contest among a subset of the name entries that will be open to worldwide participation, which "may just help determine the Grand Prize Winner," which I assume means that NASA is reserving the right not to pay attention to the Internet vote (which sounds a bit weasely, but I imagine we'd've written the same rule in if we'd been running the contest too).