How We Name the Things We Find on Mars

Hint: it can involve ... theme weeks.

The first rovings of the Curiosity rover, between its landing at a site subsequently named "Bradbury Landing" and the position reached by August 10, 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

The Curiosity rover that arrived on Mars a year ago this August was named by Clara Ma, a sixth-grader from Kansas. Ma submitted an essay to a national competition, Name the Rover, that asked students to submit ideas for what the new rover -- née Mars Science Laboratory -- should be called as a nickname. "Curiosity," and Ma, won.

Many objects on Mars, though, get their monickers through a much less formal naming process. In a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival this morning, Daniel Limonadi, a senior flight systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained how scientists go about the epic work that is naming objects that human eyes are encountering for the first time.

It involves ... theme weeks. Seriously.

"The scientists just make lists of names" within a given theme, Limonadi said, and as Curiosity comes across new objects of note on the Martian landscape, they assign names from those lists. "We'll just pick names from that theme set."

The themes are generally exploration-related -- things like, Limonadi said, "Viking exploration" or "the Spanish exploration of the Americas." (So not, alas, "Under the Sea" or "80s night" or "¡Fiesta!" ... although there's a lot of Mars left to be discovered and only so many famous Vikings, so you never know.) The themes and lists come in handy, Limonadi explained, because scientists are exploring so many new mountains and trenches and plains (and rocknests and streambeds and impact craters) on Mars that they simply need a convenient way to discuss them all. It would be both annoying and impractical to refer to the Gale Crater as, say, Crater X."

The nicknames also allow scientists -- at JPL and at NASA more broadly -- to pay tribute to humans who have inspired our explorations of space. Curiosity's landing site was christened "Bradbury Landing" in honor of the man who wrote The Martian Chronicles and whose work inspired many an astrophysicist. The landing sites of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which arrived on Mars in 2004, are dubbed the "Columbia Memorial Station" and "Challenger Memorial Station," with NASA naming seven hills studding the former's landing site for the seven astronauts who perished in the Columbia shuttle.

When it comes to the ad hoc naming system Limonadi was talking about, though, the nicknames aren't (necessarily) names of the official, enduring, on-behalf-of-all-mankind variety. The International Astronomical Union is in charge of that kind of naming, and the designation process can be a laborious and lengthy one. Yet Curiosity is roving at a pretty nice clip, capturing images of new landmarks almost daily. As a result, there are often discrepancies between the names scientists use internally and the official names of Martian landmarks. Take the Martian mountain next to the crater where Curiosity landed last year. You have likely heard it referred to, if you've heard it referred to at all, as Mount Sharp. Yet the official, IAU-designated name of that object is Aeolis Mons. And that name wasn't officially given until May 2012 -- just three months before Curiosity landed. 

In the meantime, NASA needed a nickname. It selected "Mount Sharp." And nicknames, however they're derived, have a funny way of sticking.