NASA will post online nine names that are finalists for the agency’s Mars Science Laboratory mission and invite the public to vote for its favorite. The non-binding poll to help NASA select a name opens online Monday, March 23, and will accept votes through March 29.

More than 9,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grades submitted essays proposing names for the rover in a nationwide contest that ended Jan. 25. Entries came from all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the families of American service personnel overseas. NASA will select the winning name, based on a student’s essay and the public poll, and announce the name in April.

“The names that students proposed range from heroes to animals and bugs,” said Michelle Viotti, manager of the Mars Public Engagement program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, in Pasadena, Calif. “No matter what name is finally chosen, this is a mission for everyone, and we can’t wait to start calling this rover by name.”

The student who submitted the winning name will be invited to JPL to sign the rover. Additionally, all 30 student semi-finalists in the naming contest will have an opportunity to place an individually-tailored message on the chip. For worldwide participation beyond the contest, the public has a chance to participate in “Send Your Name to Mars.” The agency will collect names to be recorded on a microchip that will be carried on the car-sized robotic explorer. Names will be collected via the contest web link beginning Monday.

The naming contest is part of a Space Act Agreement between NASA and Disney. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures is the prize provider for the contest. This collaboration made it possible for WALL-E, the animated robotic hero from the 2008 movie of the same name, to appear in online content inviting students to participate.

Scheduled to launch in 2011 and land on Mars in 2012, the rover will use a set of advanced science instruments to check whether the environment in a selected landing region ever has been favorable for supporting microbial life and preserving evidence of such life. The rover also will search for minerals that formed in the presence of water and look for chemical building blocks of life.

JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

To view the nine finalist names and cast your vote, visit: