Guest blog: Alan Stern on Uwingu

Posted by David Eicher
on Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Humanizing Mars—One Crater at a Time!

Alan Stern is a planetary scientist and a founder of Uwingu. He is the former head of all science missions at NASA.

Many of you have probably heard of Uwingu, a commercial space company founded by planetary scientists and space enthusiasts, including myself.

Uwingu’s twin goals are to find new ways to personally engage the public in space and space exploration and to direct half of all the revenues from our business to create a new source of funding — The Uwingu Fund — for space research, space education, and space exploration. It’s a new kind of business model, and we’re excited about it. So are others, like Astronomy magazine, who have partnered with us to help us grow.

We funded the launch of Uwingu with a successful Indiegogo campaign in late 2012. In 2013, we launched a test project that allows anyone in the public to suggest names for exoplanets and to vote on the ones they like the best. Then this February, we launched a project to create a new map of Mars that labels the over 500,000 scientifically cataloged but unnamed craters of Mars.

In March, the Mars One private space mission announced that its 2018 robotic lander will carry Uwingu’s new Mars map to the martian surface and that Mars One will use our map in all its future mission operations. This month, a second private Mars mission, called Time Capsule to Mars (TCTM), is announcing that they too will carry our map to Mars.

In just the past 10 weeks or so, almost 10,000 craters have received names on our Mars map. This compares to just over 1,000 craters that were named by scientific committees in the previous 50 years!

As our Mars map’s crater names and citations and comments grow on our website, we’ve been excited to see that people really like engaging in the exploration of Mars this way. And as a result, we’ve already generated funds and made targeted grants to organizations like Explore Mars, the International Dark-Sky Association, Astronomers Without Borders, and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.  Next month, we’ll be announcing the results of our first open grant solicitation, which will be funding 10–15 planetary science Ph.D. students to present their research at scientific conferences.

When we launched the mapping project, something very interesting started happening: We found that people are using it to remember loved ones, honor friends, re-create earthly place names on Mars, put their school’s name on Mars, and celebrate milestones in their lives. Parents have even named craters on the map to cheer up sick children, and one man created a memorial in crater names about a lost friend, Annie Cameron. Another proposed to his girlfriend via a named crater. People are humanizing the Red Planet — one crater at a time!

We didn’t predict this, but it’s wonderful. And in retrospect, it’s not very surprising — look at a map of nearly anywhere on Earth, and you'll see names describing local geology and wildlife, notable events, things, and people loved and missed, and names embodying local industries and aspirations. It’s heartwarming to us to see something similar now happening in the 21st century on Mars.

The people of this time may not be able to go to Mars in person, but our spirits are going there and turning an empty map of a frozen desert into a warm and friendlier place.

We at Uwingu invite you — the readers of Astronomy — to join in, to be pioneers and help continue to humanize Mars. Then tell your friends about it so they can participate too!

It’s a BIG job completing the first modern Mars map with every scientifically cataloged crater named! Help us connect more people to space and space exploration by putting a little piece of yourselves into this new map. And help us create more funds for grants to space research, space education, and space exploration!

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