How do the rocks and valleys of Mars receive their names? Explained by NASA
How do the rocks and valleys of Mars receive their names? Explained by NASA

When venturing into undiscovered areas, like the one Curiosity and Perseverance are doing on Mars for NASA, mapmakers need a lot of names.

On Earth, many names have been given to Mars’s major geological features, such as hills, mountains, dry river beds, and craters. But NASA scientists also give names to far smaller phenomena on Mars, from enormous rocks to microscopic pebbles. Why do scientists on Mars engage in what would be viewed as very odd behaviour on Earth—naming a pebble? How, therefore, do we get to this list?
In a recent video released by NASA, geologist and Caltech professor Tina Seeger describes how rocks, drill targets, and other sites on Mars are given names.
“Just like on Earth, Mars geologists rely on familiar names on a map to understand the landscape and communicate with each other about the rocks seen by the rovers,” said Seeger, a doctorate student and collaborator on the Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions. The craters named Curiosity and Perseverance are separated by more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km), and the rocks inside them have been given names based on locations on Earth.


There are essentially two types of names for Martian features. Official names are given to some, while others are known by their nicknames. The Perseverance rover, for instance, is now exploring a rock outcrop on the rim of Belva Crater, a sizable impact crater inside the much larger Jezero Crater.

The West Virginia community of Belva was named after Belva Ann Lockwood, a pioneering female attorney and one of the first women in the United States to run for president. Meanwhile, “lake” (jezero) is a common noun in numerous Slavic languages.

Curiosity, the elder sibling of intrepid explorers Perseverance and tenacity helped me recently drill a rock sample from a spot called “Ubajara,” named after a national park in Brazil. Although “Ubajara” is often used, it is not an official name like “Jezero” or “Bela.”

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) maintains rigorous standards for naming features across the solar system, and it is responsible for assigning official names. Seeger argued that the tiny craters on Mars should be given the names of Earthly municipalities. “Smaller features like rocks, cliffs, and meteorites — those get nicknames chosen by the rover teams that are not official, but they do stick.”

Seeger argued that this method of selecting names is an improvement over previous methods, even if it may appear random.

Names like “Barnacle Bill” and “Indiana Jones” were created on the spot in the ’90s, as the saying goes. “Remember, back on Mars in 1997, when NASA’s Pathfinder lander-rover touched down, there was a rock that looked like the face of Yogi Bear, so it was dubbed Yogi Rock,” she remarked.

“But now we compile a list of names ahead of time based on different themes,” she said. As an example, “We draw a grid on the map, where each square is a different quadrant that represents a different theme.”

Perseverance’s caretakers chose names from national parks all around the globe, while the Curiosity team chose names from South America and Scotland.

Seeger said, “Drilled rock samples that Perseverance has dropped for collection also have names like ‘Bearwallow,’ which is named after a hiking path in Shenandoah National Park. “Bonanza King,” after the Bonanza King Rock feature in Death Valley, is one of my favourite Curiosity targets.

The geologist also pointed out the area where Perseverance travelled because it looks like a strip of bacon from above. This led to its humorous moniker, “Bacon Strip.” And if given the opportunity, she has some suggestions on what to call a rock on Mars.

“I spent seven summers as the Night Skies ranger at Mount Rainier National Park,” Seeger said, “so I’d probably pick something named after Mount Rainier or a place that’s special to me inside the park.” “To my good fortune, I was assigned to map the Mount Rainier section of Jezero Crater. That hope may come true if we risk driving through it.



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