Cracking the Code: How NASA Names Mars' Craters, Rocks, and Everything In-Between! | Explained

Take a fascinating dive into the intriguing methods and history behind NASA's Mars naming conventions, from official monikers approved by the International Astronomical Union to the more whimsical, unofficial nicknames.

Updated Jun 14, 2023 | 12:56 PM IST

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Naming Landmarks on Mars!

Naming Landmarks on Mars!

  • Unveiling NASA's unique blend of scientific and whimsical naming conventions for Martian features.
  • Over 2,000 locations on Mars bear official names, with countless more informal nicknames dotting the Red Planet.
  • Curiosity and Perseverance rovers draw on Earth's geography for nicknaming Mars' quadrants.
We've all heard of the Red Planet, but have you ever wondered how places on Mars get their names? There's an art to it. The canvas is expansive, including not just craters and hills, but every discernible boulder, pebble, and rock surface under investigation. The naming process is a delicate blend of scientific precision, historical homage, and whimsical wordplay, with thousands of names dotting the Martian map like interstellar breadcrumbs.

International Astronomical Union: The Official Name Game

An official Martian name comes with the seal of approval from a heavyweight body - the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU sets the gold standard for naming planetary features, preserving the monikers in the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature.
Craters larger than 37 miles are christened after renowned scientists or science-fiction authors, while smaller craters take names from towns with populations under 100,000. For instance, Jezero Crater, currently under Perseverance's keen inspection, borrows its name from a Bosnian town.
Credits NASAJPL-CaltechUniversity of Arizona
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Unofficially Fun: The Evolution of Nicknames

NASA's naming philosophy isn't always strictly scientific. In the late '90s, NASA's Sojourner assigned nicknames from the realm of cartoons to Mars' features. Unofficial appellations such as "Yogi Rock," "Casper," and "Scooby-Doo" showed a lighter side to space exploration.
This trend morphed over time, with rovers like Spirit and Opportunity adopting more purposeful names. Opportunity honored Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition with the "Endurance" crater, while Curiosity and Perseverance's landing sites celebrate science-fiction maestros Ray Bradbury and Octavia E. Butler.

Terra Firma on Extraterrestrial Terrain

In an intriguing twist, Curiosity and Perseverance tend to base their nicknames on earthly locales. Quadrants, square grids encompassing approximately 0.7 miles, are themed around sites of geological significance on Earth. For instance, Curiosity’s latest quadrant is themed after Roraima, the northernmost state of Brazil and Mount Roraima in the Pacaraima Mountains.
In contrast, Perseverance ventures through the Martian landscape using national park themes, currently exploring the "Rocky Mountain" quadrant.
Through a balanced blend of whimsy and scientific method, NASA brings Earth a little closer to Mars, one name at a time.
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