As the MESSENGER Mission to Mercury gets ready to wrap up operations in 2015, the team is inviting all Earthlings to enter a contest to name five of the planet's important craters.
The crater-naming contest was launched 15 December by NASA Education and Public Outreach for the mission, which includes the AAAS Education Directorate as one of its partners. The goal is to give names to five intriguing craters that follow the tradition of naming Mercury landmarks for individuals who have made significant contributions to the arts and humanities.
Entrants can nominate any visual artist, writer, poet, architect, musician, or composer who has been recognized as an "art-historically-significant figure" for more than 50 years and who has been dead for at least three years. The MESSENGER team is especially interested in nominations that honor people from nations or cultural groups underrepresented in the named craters.
All contest entries must be received by 15 January, and 15 finalist names will be forwarded to the International Astronomical Union for the final approval of five names. The winning names will be announced in March 2015 to coincide with the end of the MESSENGER mission.
The craters themselves relate to some of the most interesting scientific questions that MESSENGER has uncovered as the only spacecraft to orbit Mercury. For instance, images of unnamed "Crater B" has been studied to learn more about the mysterious "hollows" that are found on the planet and may be the result of solid rock transforming directly into gas. Parts of the floor of "Crater E" are always in shadow, and may be cold enough to contain water ice.
AAAS Education and Human Resources Program Director Bob Hirshon, who has served as the AAAS partner with the NASA outreach project, has worked to develop interactive educational materials related to the mission. For instance, anyone who wants to explore Mercury's surface in detail can go to the Mercury in Google Earth web page and open a high resolution digital globe of the planet.
"It replaces Earth in the program with Mercury," said Hirshon. "You can then use the standard Google Earth features to visit Balanchine Crater in the Caloris Basin as easily as you'd visit Toledo, Ohio. You can also take video tours featuring discoveries reported in Science magazine, narrated by the lead scientists."
At Mercury Mappers, which AAAS co-produced with CosmoQuest, visitors sign up to analyze images downloaded from MESSENGER, measuring craters and looking for interesting surface features to help planetary geologists studying the planet.
MESSENGER's three fly-bys of Mercury and subsequent orbital mission have yielded a wealth of data about the evolution of rocky planets in our Solar System. In 2011, Science magazine published a special issue of studies about the planet’s surface, magnetic field and geological history.