Recently, US space agency Nasa’s Curiosity rover drilled a sample at a location called “Ubajara.” While the crater has an official name, the drill location has a nickname. These names are among thousands used by Nasa to identify craters, hills, riverbeds, and rock surfaces studied on Mars.
Over 25 years ago, scientists used cartoon character names as identifiers such as “Yogi Rock,” “Casper,” and “Scooby-Doo”. These were among the unofficial names applied by the team behind Nasa’s first rover, Sojourner, in the late 1990s.
Now, names such as Rocky Mountain, Sierra Nevada, Timanfaya, and Pembrokeshire Coast are given to study locations on Mars. According to Ashwin Vasavada, the Curiosity mission’s project scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the main reason for the names is to keep track of all the findings. Vasavada added in a statement by Nasa, “Later on, we can refer to the many hills and rocks by name as we discuss them and eventually document our discoveries.”
According to Nasa, there is a simple difference between an official name on Mars and an unofficial one: the former has been approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which implements standards for naming planetary features and records the names in the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature.
For example, Nasa spokespersons in the statement explain, craters larger than 60 kilometres are named after scientists or science-fiction authors. The smaller ones are named after towns with populations of less than 100,000 people. Currently, the Perseverance rover is examining rock areas near the Belva Crater, which is located within the Jezero Crater.
Belva is named after a West Virginia town which is named after Belva Lockwood, the suffragist who ran for president in 1884 and 1888. Jezero Crater shared the name with a Bosnian town, according to Nasa.
More than 2,000 locations on Mars have official names, but even more have unofficial nicknames. Mostly, Curiosity and Perseverance missions use nicknames based on terrestrial locations, according to the statement.
Team members suggest ideas for themes based on areas where they have worked or have a personal connection. This is informally discussed and after a theme is picked, the names fitting into that theme are compiled. For Curiosity’s latest quadrant, the team picked a theme named after Roraima, the northernmost state of Brazil, and for Mount Roraima, the highest peak in the Pacaraima Mountains, located near the border of Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana. This was the first South American quadrant theme, according to Nasa.