Spirit Sol 3

It's sol 3, and I'm working on Mars time. I woke up at about 9 PM (after staying up more than 24 hours to wear myself out) and made it to work at about 11.

I arrived in time to catch most of a very interesting science discussion. It started with a look at the preliminary PANCAM images, which show a very interesting rock field (I can't believe I'm starting to find rocks interesting, but there you are). The rocks are sort of smooth and round and angular all at the same time, and there's no good evidence of sedimentary rocks at this point, which seems to surprise the scientists. Some good news: at least within 5m of the vehicle, we don't see any rocks larger than about 20cm, which makes for excellent driving terrain.

There's also still debate about exactly where we landed. There are at least two strong candidates right now; when we get full PANCAM data shortly, we should know a lot more.

The most interesting part of the meeting was a 15- or 20-minute discussion about naming geological features. One of the first proposals was related to naming the craters we saw in the descent images. The starting suggestion was to name them after coins, partly because people are familiar with coins and partly as a thank-you to the descent imager, which is named DIMES. More specifically, they'd be named for the people on the coins -- Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and so on. To avoid being too America-centric, we'd also use coins from other countries -- especially Germany, Denmark, Brazil, and France, our international partners on this mission.

The same discussion included how to name the landmarks we can see from the landing site, such as the hills to the east and the peak to the south. The initial suggestion was to name the distant hills "Endurance Hills," for the name of Shackleton's ship (and to reflect what it will take us to get there, if we decide to drive to them), and then name other features after the members of Shackleton's crew. There's some concern about tying ourselves so closely to a mission that, as romantic as it was, was technically a failure ("did not fundamentally meet its Level-1 requirements," as Squyres jokingly put it).

A more general version of that proposal emerged later: name the landmarks after explorers generally (or, in another variant, after their ships -- this would also allow us to tip our cap to the Beagle 2). One advantage of this is that there have been many explorers from all lands, so we could easily give the names an international flavor. (And we could include Darwin in the honorees, which is a big plus as far as I'm concerned.) A problem with this is that the same explorer is usually perceived differently by different cultures -- Columbus might be the most obvious example (though nobody brought him up explicitly), but for nearly any famous explorer you can think of, there's someone who thinks of him less as an explorer and more as a marauder. The idea was gaining momentum despite this drawback, until our NASA HQ rep said something like "I can just see the name 'Pillager Hills,'" which provoked a lot of laughter and seemed to deflate the proposal.

Other suggestions for geological features: deliberately generic names such as "East Hills" and "South Knob" (derided as "too boring"), names drawn from the coined words in Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky," and names of general qualities such as "Forbearance" and "Courage." The last proposal fits reasonably nicely with the rover names ("Spirit" and "Opportunity") and lets us preserve "Endurance" as the name for the hills to the east. But I think it might have lost some of its support when someone jokingly suggested "Chastity" as one of the names ("Well, it is going to be a long mission," laughed Squyres).

Yet another proposal that came up late: craters are ring-like, and The Lord of the Rings is popular right now, so why not use Tolkien-based names? A downside is that this might be too topical, but the idea has some support despite that.

Right now, I don't think any proposal is winning. We have to settle on something before too much longer, because our jobs are easier when the features have names, but it's a hard problem: we don't want to be too exclusive (that is, too America-focused), too generic, too topical, or too serious. ("Too serious" is a problem because we don't want the International Astronomical Union to think we're trying to usurp their job of giving these objects their official names. Lighthearted names not only make the mission more fun, they also signal, accurately, that we're not trying to step on the IAU's toes.)

The current leader -- by a nose -- might be a still later variation on the theme of explorer names: using the names of scientific explorers such as Shackleton, Darwin, and the like. The concept is to honor those past scientific explorers in whose footsteps we're following. But there's no telling how this will go: at some point, someone will think of a naming scheme that will really catch fire, and that will be that. Stay tuned.

Incidentally, we're told that we don't get to name the landing sites -- that's happening higher up the food chain.

(Above) -- Views from within the science room. Rover drivers Brian Cooper and Frank Hartman, among other team members, look on ...

... as the science team debates ...

... and debates ...

... and debates. :-)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While it is understood the naming of features is to some degree important, it is likely that the cleverness of the titles will be lost with the passage of time.
Not that I should be in opposition, only that with all the opportunity to acquire knowledge now at hand, so much time should be spent determining a naming convention instead of proceeding investigations seems rather superfluous to me?
Ah well, good science is best done with great care :)

All that said, thank you so much for the insight into this fantastic project!