NASA's Mercury orbiter has been spotting all of the planet's impact craters over the past three years of its mission, and now it's time to name a few of them. You can help, as long as you've got a favorite deceased artist or two to contribute.
The MESSENGER orbiter, which has been circling Mercury since March of 2011, has surpassed its originally planned mission by about three years. But after 8 billion miles of travel -- getting to Mercury after its 2004 launch, and then orbiting the planet -- it's getting close to the end of its life. When the orbiter runs out of fuel (which will happen around March of 2015), gravity will send the robot crashing onto Mercury's surface.
But the little orbiter has been a big success, and the scientists involved want people to take notice. Before MESSENGER, the only spacecraft to visit Mercury was Mariner 10, which took pictures of less than half of the planet during a 1970's flyby. NASA only counted on getting about 2,500 images from the new orbiter, but so far MESSENGER has beamed back over 250,000 -- mapping the entire surface of the planet.
In other words, the orbiter has mapped a lot of geological features, and it's easier to keep track of them if they've got names.
You can submit your ideas for crater names from now until Jan. 15. Winners will be announced in March or April.
There are rules, of course: Impact craters on Mercury have to be named in honor of people who have contributed to the arts. No craters for Lady Gaga or Beyonce, either -- the rules say that the individual must have been recognized as an "art-historically significant figure" for more than 50 years, and dead for at least three.