Making Mars' features more down to Earth
Los Angeles Times
Diana Blaney, a planetary scientist working on the Mars rover missions, stared at a black-and-white image of three rocks about the size of duffel bags in Gusev Crater.
Feeling a little brain-dead from a lack of sleep and an overdose of Diet Coke, she scraped her mind for a name.
Then it came to her. She had just read an e-mail from two friends, so she typed "Rita" into her computer after their black shepherd-Labrador mix.
Now she was on a roll.
"Pepper," she decided, naming a rock after another friend's grayish-white cat, and "Ladrone," after Rita's black-and-white adopted brother.
The alien landscape of Mars took a few more steps toward becoming more familiar.
Like European explorers who named the New World after their homes in the Old, the Mars scientists have filled the strange landscape of the Red Planet with a mishmash of modern life on Earth.
The twin rover missions have forced scientists to come up with more than 4,000 names to mark everything from the majestic Columbia Hills to a few pebbles in the sand.
An eclectic map
The result is an extravagantly labeled map of Mars punctuated by the scientists' ever-changing preoccupations with history, holidays, monkeys, ice cream, cartoon characters, sushi, Mayan words, Scandinavian fish delicacies ... the list goes on and on.
It hasn't been easy.
Sometimes a rock gets named twice. Sometimes the names run afoul of the official naming protocol. Sometimes one team member doesn't like the theme for an area. And sometimes team members get desperate.
Blaney has reached that state of mental blankness several times in the nearly two years that the robotic rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, have been wandering the surface of Mars.
As a specialist directing the infrared instrument on Spirit, the 43-year-old scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., figures she has come up with several hundred names, each dutifully recorded in the rovers' mission database.
Why they're needed
Brad Smith, 74, an astronomer who worked on several Mariner missions to map the Red Planet and who leads a task group on official naming on Mars for the International Astronomical Union, said there is a purpose behind the frenzy: Scientists need a common set of names.
It is too difficult to discuss "that volcano on the left," or "the one on the right," he said. "People like to name their pets instead of saying, 'Hey you' or 'The dog.' "
The names from the rover missions are considered unofficial titles, but for some of the larger landmarks, they have stuck.
In the 19th century, when better telescopes allowed scientists to see more detailed features on the planet, astronomers Giovanni Schiaparelli and Eugene Antoniadi produced the first detailed maps of the planet. They came up with about 100 names for what they thought were seas, continents, polar ice caps and canals or channels crisscrossing the surface.
The names, mostly drawn from the Bible, myths and classical locations, were used until the 1960s when NASA's Mariner missions swooped by for a close-up of the planet.
The detail from the Mariner mission cameras forced the International Astronomical Union to come up with an official Martian naming system.
The union decided that large craters would be named after deceased scientists or writers who contributed to the lore of Mars, such as Schiaparelli and author H.G. Wells. Small craters would be named after towns and villages with populations of fewer than 100,000 people. Large valleys would be named using the word "Mars" in various languages; small valleys would be named after rivers. Nothing smaller than 330 feet would get an official name unless it had exceptional scientific interest.
An avalanche of sites
But the arrival of the Mars rovers has overloaded the whole system. With the ability to look close and far with incredible detail, the two robots have forced scientists to churn out names like a sweatshop factory.
Some of the names, like the Columbia Hills — after the ill-fated space shuttle that was destroyed on re-entry in 2003 — have a deep meaning in the history of space exploration.
Others sound like they were named by exhausted scientists whose children watch a lot of cartoons.
The first days of the rover missions went smoothly enough.
Spirit was the first to touch down and, after getting settled, snapped a picture of a nearby 30-foot crater that the mission's principal investigator dubbed Sleepy Hollow, after the long hours the mission team had been working.
Two prominent rocks were named Adirondack, for the mountain range in New York, and Sashimi, for the rock's salmon color.
Spirit's twin, Opportunity, landed three weeks later on the other side of the planet in Meridiani Planum.
Because scientists were raiding a freezer of ice cream at the time, there is an area of round and chunky pebbles named Cookies N Cream and a lighter patch of soil named Vanilla.
Earlier this year, a pockmarked meteorite in Opportunity's path was named SpongeBob SquarePants.
Just before Valentine's Day last year, Jeff Moersch, 38, a planetary geologist at the University of Tennessee, decided to name a rock after his wife, Sarah.
He said he and his colleagues realized they shouldn't have used such personal names in a big project funded with hundreds of millions of dollars of public money. Psychologists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had given them lists of approved names.
"People just lose the lists," Moersch said. "The honest truth of it is, we're working on such a fast-paced schedule. ... We have to quickly come up with any name that's unique. It doesn't matter so much what it is."
Blaney eventually concluded that a naming system needed to be put together.
One was Mayan words.
She and her colleagues searched online for names such as Coba, a ruined city on the Yucatan peninsula, and Tikal, a temple site in Guatemala.
They named a low, wrinkly crop of rock Uchben, after the Mayan word for "ancient," and a spot on the rock Koolik, which means "cut down."
"We started running out of Mayan city names," she said. "The people who had to spell them were really getting annoyed."
So, they moved on to 1970s rock — ABBA, the Bee Gees and Engelbert Humperdinck.
No, but seriously ...
Jim Rice, 46, an astrogeologist who worked on Opportunity, wanted to get beyond all the frivolous names.
"We are explorers. The rovers are our robotic emissaries," he said. So he decided a more appropriate scheme was to use the names of famous ships of exploration.
Eagle, the name of Neil Armstrong's module on the moon, was a no-brainer. It became the name of the crater Opportunity landed in.
Then there was Fram, the ship that carried the first team of men to make it to the South Pole, and Vostok, a warship that navigated Antarctica and also the spaceship of Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space.
Because the rover teams were the ones scouring the Martian landscape and drilling holes, Rice believed it was their prerogative to spin a web of working names.
"The IAU meets once every three years," he said. "Our mission was unfolding in real time, and we needed to have names as it was going on."
The astronomical union doesn't much concern itself with these matters. Except in one case.
The biggest controversy has been over the naming of seven Martian hills after the astronauts who died in the Columbia shuttle accident.
It was a clear violation of the international rules that the names of hills be based on major geographical areas nearby. In addition, people had to be dead at least three years before their names could be used.
NASA and the astronomical union compromised, deciding to allow NASA to use the name in the popular media, but not entering it into the IAU database.
Rice doesn't mind if the monikers for the Columbia Hills or craters remain unofficial. He believes these types of names will stick.
"It doesn't matter if the IAU approves it or not," he said. "Unless there is an atomic war and the records are erased, when someone lands on Mars in 20 to 30 years and they go to Eagle Crater, they'll still call it Eagle Crater."
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