NASA wants to send your name to one of Jupiter's moons

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It’s the ultimate message in a bottle. NASA is gathering names that will be etched onto a tiny microchip and blasted into space aboard the whimsically named Europa Clipper space probe.

Five years later, if all goes well, the spacecraft will enter orbit around Jupiter before making a series of close passes by Europa, one of its moon. Its mission: To seek out signs of habitability for life (scientists are pretty sure there’s an ocean beneath its crust) and to boldly identify a landing site for a future mission to the icy Jovian moon.

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NASA has a long history of generating public support for its missions by offering Earthlings a chance to send their name into deep space, and sometimes even naming the rides that take them there. Sojourner, the first rover to land on Mars, was named in 1995 by 12-year-old Valerie Ambroise of Connecticut, after 19th-century women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.

Two years later, a mini-DVD carrying 616,400 handwritten signatures was launched to Saturn aboard the Cassini-Huygens probe. NASA had put a notice on its then-new website asking for signed postcards from the public. They poured in from 80 different countries, and included one from Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

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Since then, spacecraft headed to Mars, the moon, asteroids and comets have routinely carried hundreds of thousands of names. The recent OSIRIS-Rex mission brought two sets: one that returned with its payload of asteroid samples; and another that remained on the mother ship and is even now headed for a new target, near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis.

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Bragging rights for distance go to the 434,738 people who added their names to the New Horizons spacecraft, which launched in 2006, flew past Pluto in 2015 — and is never coming back. It’s one of just five spacecraft escaping the solar system. The others — Pioneers 10 and 11, and Voyagers 1 and 2 — carry gold plaques and/or golden records, but no crowd-sourced signatures.

The Europa Clipper is no slouch, however. Upon launch next October, it will loop past Mars and then Earth, picking up the speed it needs for the 1.8-billion kilometre trip to Jupiter. Upon arrival it will spend two years exploring the side of Europa that faces away from Jupiter, coming at times within 25 kilometres of the moon’s surface. The next two years will see the spacecraft explore the Jupiter-facing side of the moon. (Like our own moon, Europa keeps one face constantly turned toward its host planet.) When the mission is over, the plan is for the Clipper to crash into another Jovian satellite, Ganymede.

Participants can sign up to put their name on the spacecraft at until Dec. 31. Already some 840,000 names have been gathered. The Europa Clipper will also carry In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa, written by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limon. NASA’s website includes the text of the poem, and an animated reading by the author. It is, appropriately, a paean to our liquid heritage, including the lines: “O second moon, we, too, are made of water, of vast and beckoning seas.”

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