February 27, 2014
– Naming landmarks on Mars isn't just for scientists and rover drivers anymore.
Anybody with an internet connection and a few dollars to spare can now give a moniker to one of the Red Planet's 500,000 or so unnamed craters, as part of a new mapping project run by the space-funding company Uwingu.
"This is the first people's map of Mars" said Uwingu CEO Alan Stern, a former NASA science chief who also heads the space agency's New Horizons mission to Pluto. "It's a very social thing."
Putting your stamp on Mars isn't free; naming the smallest craters will set you back $5, with prices going up as crater size increases. Uwingu will use the money raised by the project — which could be more than $10 million, if people name every crater — to fund space exploration, research and education grants, which is the company's stated chief purpose.
"We're developing this grant fund — the Uwingu fund — for people who have been hit by sequestration," Stern told Space.com. "There's nothing like it right now. They have no place to go; it's either NASA, NSF [National Science Foundation] or you're out of luck."
Uwingu's new "Name Craters on Mars" website lets visitors pick the craters they want to name across the Red Planet. (Uwingu)
Stern hopes the effort will succeed in naming all of Mars' cataloged craters by the end of 2014, helping to fill in a lot of gaps in Red Planet cartography. (The company aims to solicit names for other Martian features, such as canyons and mountains, in the future.)
The project could also provide a sort of cultural snapshot, revealing what people are thinking about and what may be important to them at this moment, he added.
"It is like taking a picture of ourselves," Stern said. "What will people put? Will there be a lot of craters named for politicians? For artists, for relatives, for places on Earth? Sports teams?"
The crater-naming effort is not a contest, instead it is on a first-come, first-served basis. Names are being accepted immediately and remain approved unless Uwingu officials later determine them to be profane or otherwise offensive.
Stern stressed that Uwingu (which name means "sky" in Swahili) isn't trying to supplant other Mars maps, such as the one the U.S. Geological Survey generated. The 15,000 features with names already approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) are grandfathered into Uwingu's base map.
The Uwingu project is also not seeking approval from the IAU, which has traditionally authorized "official" names for celestial bodies and their features. Rather, the names will be informal or popular, Stern said. (Unofficial names can still come into wide usage: "The Milky Way," for example, is not IAU-sanctioned.)
Uwingu plans to fund space exploration, research, and education efforts around the world. (Uwingu)
This is not Uwingu's first foray into celestial-body naming. The company has also raised funds by inviting the public to choose monikers for the thousands of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates being discovered around the galaxy, including Alpha Centauri Bb, the closest world outside our solar system to Earth.
IAU officials expressed their disapproval of these previous projects, asserting last year that the planet-naming efforts misled people into thinking that they were helping to select officially recognized names. But Stern fought back against this claim at the time, insisting Uwingu has always made clear that it only sought "people's choice" monikers.
To learn more about the Mars mapping project, and to buy a crater name of your own, go to uwingu.com/mars.