Earlier this week, a remotely operated scientific research vehicle that has been moving across the surface of Mars for the past five years stopped in Ogunquit Beach, only it looked a little different — less water, fewer people and more red rocks.
In fact, anyone paying attention to the Curiosity rover’s route across the Red Planet over the last few months may have noticed myriad names taken from landmarks, geographic formations, places and towns in Maine — Kennebec, Mt. Battie, Frenchman Bay, Spring Point, Cape Elizabeth, Rockport, Isleboro, Isle au Haut and Frye Island, to name a few. Dr. R. Aileen Yingst, of Brunswick, and Katie Stack Morgan, of California, are to thank for that.
“To be immortalized on another planet, it’s awesome,” Yingst said Tuesday. “This is one of the tremendous joys of being a planetary scientist.”
Yingst, who works as a scientist on the Curiosity mission with the Planetary Science Institute remotely from her home in Brunswick, is the deputy principal investigator of the rover’s Mahli camera.
Morgan, who works as a research scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and lives in Pasadena, California, grew up spending summers in Maine with her family. In September 2013, she married her husband in Bar Harbor, and last year, they brought their infant child to visit Maine over the summer for the first time. To put it plainly, “it doesn’t feel like summer unless I’ve been to Maine,” Morgan said Tuesday.
Morgan has been with the Mars mission since 2012, when the rover landed. As of last week, the Curiosity rover has driven 10 miles, or 16 kilometers, on the surface of Mars since it landed four years ago, according to a status report from NASA.
As part of the Curiosity mission, Morgan and her NASA colleagues each were responsible for mapping out designated sections of the previously uncharted red planet, or 1.5-square-kilometer quadrangles — “quads” for short — both before the rover landed and in real time now as it travels across the alien soil.
In determining what to name her quad, part of which borders the Bagnold Dunes, Morgan said she thought about meaningful places “that I care about a lot.”
She decided to name it the Bar Harbor quad, and because the goal is to give each quad its own specific theme, the whole area and all its chosen geographic outcrops have Maine-centric names. As part of the guidelines from the International Astronomical Union (IAU), when it comes to naming things on other planets, only town or city names with fewer than 100,000 people can be used.
It’s also acceptable to use the names of geographic formations, like mountains, lakes, deserts and islands to name areas on new planets, Yingst said.
The Curiosity rover, which is about the size of a car, collects surface samples and drills as it ambles along. Curiosity first entered the Bar Harbor quad on Oct. 25, or Sol 1500 — Sol is the equivalent of one day on Mars. Tuesday of this week represented Sol 1651. Most of the Mars rover’s days are documented with pictures and updates on a public blog operated by mission team members from the USGS Astrogeology Science Center.
At the beginning of the rover’s journey through the Bar Harbor quad, Morgan started by using names of places and geological formations around Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island — Porcupine Dry Ledge, Bald Rock Ledge, Witch Hole Pond, Southwest Harbor, Otter Cliff and Cranberry Island, for example.
New names are dished out almost on a daily basis, which means the demand for new names is unremitting. Morgan solicited Yingst’s help a few months ago, after remembering she lived in Maine.
Over the last few weeks, Curiosity has rolled past Vinalhaven, North Haven, Damariscotta Lake, Mt. Katahdin, Boothbay Harbor and Allagash.
“Just last week,” — on Sol 1649 — “we pulled up to Ogunquit Beach,” Morgan added.
“It’s really fun to see locations and places I’m familiar with on Mars and have our teammates use those names,” Morgan said.
“It is the exploration aspect that is so compelling to me and being able to put your stamp on something like this is a tremendous joy. And a responsibility too,” Yingst said.
Yingst, who said she brings a familiar knowledge — as well as an ability to pronounce the Maine names correctly — recently dubbed one of the rover’s stops the Desert of Maine — but of course this one “wasn’t deposited glacially the way it is here in Maine,” she said.
The names are informal at this point, Morgan said, but will be etched into the annals of Mars history in literature published about the Curiosity Rover mission in science journals and in the Planetary Data System, which is a “repository for all planetary mission data,” she said.
Curiosity is expected to be in the Bar Harbor quad for another month or so, as it continues to drill and collect samples. During that time, Yingst and Morgan will continue to name geographic points after places found in Maine.
Naming these undiscovered and remote areas after places that are familiar to so many people means that “those places on the map all of the sudden become real places,” Yingst said. “That’s what they are now — places with a capital P.”
And that, she said, “is one of the greatest joys of being an explorer.”