Image-of-asteroid-Itokawa

Asteroid Itokawa imaged by the Hayabusa mission (Image credit: JAXA)

I’d like to tell you that I’m on the surface of an asteroid called Itokawa. I travelled there on a Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency mission called Hayabusa and was left behind. Yes, I’m there, millions of miles away, among the rocks on Itokawa, right now as I’m typing this.You must be thinking either “Gosh, he’s finally lost it!” or “Gosh, he’s going to be putting in a big claim for travel expenses!”

You can relax. I’m on the asteroid in name only. My name and those of 877 439 other people (including mission planners, astronomers, astronauts, Steven Spielberg, Arthur C. Clarke but mainly members of the public) are engraved on a piece of metal foil in a capsule left behind on Itokawa by the Hayabusa probe. Unless someone goes there and collects it one day (you never know), the capsule and the names it contains will last as long as Itokawa does. All I had to do is leave my name at a website (long gone now so I can’t link to it).

My name is all over the Solar System. if you know where to look. I’m in Earth orbit, orbiting the Moon, in several locations on Mars, orbiting Saturn and (alas) at the bottom of the Pacific. I’ve been to the comets Wild 2 and Tempel 1. Currently I’m on the way to Venus, and the asteroids Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres and I’m riding New Horizons to Pluto and beyond. Eventually New Horizons will carry me out of the Solar System entirely (“About time too!” I hear you say).

The New Horizons probe will almost certainly outlive the Solar System, so the names on board will attain a curious semi-immortality.

Many recent space missions have encouraged public participation by letting anyone who wants add their name for free via the internet to a list to be carried into space on the probe. The list may be physically etched on a metal plate attached to the space craft (obviously in very small letters), or encoded on a computer disc or chip somewhere on board. Usually there will be the option to print out a colour certificate to show you are participating. We often add the names of visiting schools to these lists and present the lead teacher with a copy of the certificate.

At the moment you can have your name and picture carried up in one of the final Space Shuttle missions by following this link. The next opportunity to travel vicariously to another world will be to Mars on the Curiosity rover (formerly the Mars Science Laboratory) to be launched next year. You can join in at this link. Go on, add your name, print out the certificate and amaze your friends!


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