NASA’s Perseverance rover is exploring rock outcrops near Mars’ Belva Crater. NASA’s Curiosity rover sampled “Ubajara” 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) distant. The drill site has a moniker, but the crater has a name.
NASA missions name every boulder, pebble, and rock surface they explore.
“The No. 1 reason we pick all these names is to help the team keep track of what they’re finding each day,” said Ashwin Vasavada, the Curiosity mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “We can name the many hills and rocks as we discuss and document our discoveries.”
Since using cartoon character names 25 years ago, scientists have changed how they choose identifiers. Look closer.
Mars’ official and unofficial names seem simple: The IAU authorized official names. The Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature records IAU-approved planetary feature names.
Craters over 37 miles (60 kilometers) are named for notable scientists or science-fiction authors, whereas smaller craters are named for cities under 100,000 inhabitants.
Perseverance has been studying Jezero Crater, named after a Bosnian town. Belva, an impact crater within Jezero, is named after a West Virginia town named for suffragist Belva Lockwood, who campaigned for president in 1884 and 1888.
Mars has almost 2,000 official names and countless more nicknames.
Early Mars expeditions frequently used cartoon character aliases. NASA’s first rover, Sojourner, was nicknamed “Yogi Rock,” “Casper,” and “Scooby-Doo” in the late 1990s.
Spirit and Opportunity rovers used more purposeful names, changing the philosophy. The Opportunity team dubbed a crater “Endurance” after Ernest Shackleton’s ship, which sank in Antarctica. Curiosity and Perseverance were named after Ray Bradbury and Octavia E. Butler, respectively.
The InSight team christened a boulder jostled by the lander’s retrorockets “Rolling Stones Rock,” after the band. The Curiosity crew named a Martian hill after their COVID-19-killed colleague Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez.
The Curiosity and Perseverance missions use terrestrial nicknames, with few exceptions. In 2012, Curiosity’s crew generated a geological map of the landing site. They began by creating a grid with quadrants that were 0.7 miles (1.2 kilometers) square. Earth’s geological significance would inspire these quadrants.
As today, team members offered themes based on areas where they have worked or have a personal connection, and they informally debated which would be most fascinating to add, bearing in mind that various names will be commemorated in future scientific articles. A theme generates hundreds of names. Since Curiosity may dwell in a sector for months, numerous names are needed.
The rover’s researchers named Curiosity’s newest quadrant after Roraima, Brazil’s northernmost state, and Mount Roraima, the Pacaraima Mountains’ tallest peak near Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana. First South American quarter theme. The “tabletop” mountains of the Pacaraima range resembled the sulfate-enriched zone Curiosity is studying.
Perseverance scientists used national park themes. The rover is exploring the Rocky Mountain region and recently bore into rocks at Rocky Mountain National Park’s “Powell Peak.”