PASADENA, Calif. — There’s a small square of the surface of Mars, one and a half kilometers on a side, which is now officially named “Bar Harbor.”
The research scientists for the current Mars rover mission each had one or more of these 1.5-square-kilometer “quads” to name after a small town on Earth. Researcher Katie Stack Morgan at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs, who has been to Mount Desert Island every summer for much of her life, chose the name.
The initial naming happened before the rover Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on Mars in August of 2012. The rover officially began exploring that area last week.
“When Curiosity was still flying through space, we weren’t exactly sure where it was going to land,” Stack Morgan told the Islander this week. The engineers had an ellipse-shaped area where they thought it could land but didn’t know where within the area the rover would be.
“We wanted to be prepared ahead of time,” she said. “We’re gonna know what the geology is where the rover lands.”
Using images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they split the landing ellipse into quadrangles. “Each member of the science team made a map of the quad they were assigned and suggested a name for it,” Stack Morgan said. She was assigned four of the quads and decided one would be Bar Harbor.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) puts out guidelines for how you name things on other planets, she said. One rule is that you can’t use the names of large cities, only towns with populations of less than 100,000 people.
Also, Stack Morgan said, “because it’s a geology mission, we wanted to have each of these names be geologically significant.”
Curiosity’s mission, she said, is to explore habitable environments. “Not so much looking for life forms themselves but looking for places we think life could have existed at one point in the past. We’re looking for the conditions that might have been able to support life.”
The roughly car-sized rover is a roving geologist that carries its own laboratory, she said. “Curiosity has an arm that can drill into a rock, grind up the rock into a powder, or scoop up loose soil, and deliver the sample into the body of the rover to analyze it.”
It also can zap a rock with a laser and analyze the gases produced. Other instruments collect other data, like images, or temperature, pressure and wind readings.
As Curiosity analyzes rocks and outcrops, each one gets a name that goes with the theme of the quad. So Stack Morgan compiled a list of related Maine names ahead of time, but she said they’ve been using up names fast since Curiosity crossed into the Bar Harbor quad on Oct. 25, or “Sol 1501” of the mission. The team at the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center has a blog for the mission with live updates.
“I started with geological formations of MDI, like the Acadia formation, Baker Island formation, Ellsworth schist and Cadillac Mountain granite.”
Then she moved on to names of landmarks in Acadia, like Aunt Betty Pond (the Martian version is not really a pond), Gilmore Peak, Gorham, the Bubbles –“the team got a kick out of that one!” – Jordan Pond and Witch Hole Pond.
“We use hundreds of target names,” she said. “I added harbor names, coves, like Squeaker cove, Squid cove. We used Thrumcap this past weekend.”
The rocks the rover is finding are not granite like their namesakes.
“We mostly are seeing sedimentary rock,” Stack Morgan said. “There’s a five-kilometer-thick mound of sandstones and mudstones. Some have been really oxidized, classic red color like we think of for Mars, but some we saw earlier in the mission were gray. That was interesting for us because oxidation state [which makes rocks red] is one of the components we think about for habitability.”
Stack Morgan grew up in Connecticut and went to Williams College, then earned a master’s degree and doctorate in geology at the California Institute of Technology.
Her husband proposed during a trip to MDI when the couple was at the summit of Penobscot Mountain, looking down on Jordan Pond.
“I actually carried my own ring up the mountain!” she laughed, “because I had the backpack.”
They were married at the Bar Harbor Inn, and this summer, they brought their one-year-old son to Maine for the first time.
Using the MDI and Acadia names on the Curiosity mission, then, has been a special connection between her personal life and work life.
“Bar Harbor has been so special to me in my Earth life,” she said. “It’s so fun to see these names get used on Mars.”