Science for All | How are things on Mars named? 

The Hindu’s weekly Science for All newsletter explains all things Science, without the jargon.

Updated - June 15, 2023 10:44 am IST

Published - June 13, 2023 03:25 pm IST

Belva Crater. Echo Creek. Artuby Ridge. These aren’t just everyday geographical locations; these are locations on Mars. But, how do space agencies decide the names of locations on another planet? We find out in this edition of Science for All

Official names for locations on Mars are decided by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) under strict guidelines. In fact, IAU has instructions to name all planetary objects, including planets, planetary features, meteor showers, stars, and more. 

To name planetary features, like those on Mars, the first step according to IAU is to choose a theme when the first images of the planet or its associated satellite are obtained. The names of a few important features are proposed, usually by the members of an IAU task group. 

Researchers mapping or describing specific surfaces or geological formations may request names for additional features once higher-resolution images and maps become available. Anyone can suggest a name to be considered by the task group, although there is no guarantee that it will be accepted. 

Names successfully reviewed by a task group are submitted by the group chair to the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature. Members of this group vote to review the suggested names, and approved choices become official IAU nomenclature. 

Tina Seeger, a research assistant at the California Institute of Technology who studies rocks on Mars, says that small craters on Mars must be named after small towns like Belva or Jezero, which means ‘lake’ in many Slavic languages. NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently located near the Jezero crater. 

Names for smaller features, like rocks and cliffs, are usually chosen by rover teams and are not official but tend to stick. 

Previously, researchers picked random names, like “Barnacle Bill”. However, now they compile a list of names ahead of time based on different themes. Researchers then draw a grid on the map where each square is a different quadrant representing a different theme. 

While Curiosity has used names from South America and Scotland, Perseverance uses names from national parks around the world. 

Researchers studying Mars rely on familiar names on a map to understand the landscape and communicate with each other about the rocks seen by the rovers, Ms. Seeger says. 

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