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Agoura Hills Offers Its Name to Fill Void on Mars

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Times Staff Writer

Agoura Hills is in the running for an honor that is truly out of this world.

The hilly green city near the Los Angeles-Ventura County line is a contender for the privilege of having a small crater on the Red Planet bear its name.

Agoura Hills City Councilwoman Darlene McBane sought the distinction after reading a newspaper article about an international committee of scientists working to name the geological features of planets, satellites, asteroids and comets.

The Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, a committee of the Paris-based International Astronomical Union, is naming small Martian craters after villages around the world. (Large Martian craters are being named after dead scientists, writers and others who have contributed to the study of Mars.)

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Intrigued, McBane fired off a letter to committee president Harold Masursky saying that Agoura Hills’ 20,200 citizens would be “thrilled and honored” to have a namesake 48.7 million miles away.

Last month, Masursky informed McBane that Agoura Hills had made it into the committee’s Mars “name bank,” the first step toward celestial celebrity. Masursky, an astrogeologist in Flagstaff, Ariz., with the U. S. Geological Survey, which produces the interplanetary maps, said Agoura Hills has a “fair chance” of being selected.

A Sister Planet, Perhaps

“I just thought it would be kind of fun,” said McBane, a 22-year Agoura Hills resident. “Other places have sister cities. Well, we might have a sister planet.

“They have to name it something. It might as well be Agoura Hills.”

McBane’s City Council colleagues, whose approval was not sought or needed for the Martian venture, jokingly suggested that McBane “be the first person to visit the planet. They told me I could go plant the flag,” McBane said.

If selected, Agoura Hills would join about 400 communities around the world for which craters have already been named, including Poona, India; Wassamu, Japan; Weer, Austria; Rong, Tibet; Rauch, Argentina and--a little closer to home--Santa Fe, N.M., and Ottumwa, Iowa.

The Astronomical Union was formed in 1919 to help resolve the problem of competing names given to features of the moon. Its mapping responsibilities have grown as knowledge of the solar system has expanded.

Mars is the only celestial body for which village names are allowed. Features of other planets bear the names of “fire, sun and thunder gods,” characters from literature, deceased authors, composers, artists, scientists and the like, according to Mary Mimi Strobell, a planetary nomenclaturist with the Geological Survey.

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Anyone can nominate the name of a village--loosely defined by the committee as a place with fewer than 100,000 residents--for consideration for the seemingly infinite number of Martian craters remaining to be named, Strobell said.

Masursky said about 3,000 suggestions for names have come from schoolchildren who read a nationally circulated school newspaper article about the committee’s work. Several hundred more suggestions have come from citizens and from scientists studying maps of the world.

Some names were rejected after they were found to be obscenities in a foreign language, Masursky said. Soviet committee members, for instance, vetoed a name taken from ancient Jericho because it had a “four-letter equivalent” in Russian, he said.

Because rejected names are simply crumpled up and tossed in the trash without being noted, no figures on the number of names rejected are available, Masursky said. But being selected for the name bank is “a big step forward,” Strobell said, although Agoura Hills still has a long haul ahead and a few major obstacles.

The committee favors one-word names of three syllables or under that emphasize a country’s heritage--Indian or Eskimo names in the United States, for instance or Aborigine names in Australia, Strobell said. Agoura Hills was named after Pierre Agoure, a French sheep and cattle rancher who once lived in the area.

But the committee has been known to break its rules. For instance, it let Innsbruck, Austria, a city of 117,287, sneak in because it was home of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, Strobell said.

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It also helps if the community has a claim to fame, such as that of the town in Guam that noted that it is the first place in any U.S. possession to see the sun rise each day.

As a selling point in her letter to the committee, McBane said many Agoura residents “are employed by companies which plan and manufacture rockets and explorer vessels.” The letter didn’t say the companies are outside the city limits.

Culling From the Name Bank

The committee dips into the name bank when scientists studying an area of a planet or other body request that geological features be named. U.S. and Soviet space planners also ask for names when preparing maps for landing sites, Masursky said. The Soviets plan to send a spacecraft to Mars next year.

There are about 300 names in the Mars bank right now that may be picked for the several small craters that will be named in the next 10 to 20 years, Masursky said.

If selected by the committee’s Mars task force, a name goes before Masursky’s committee, then the Astronomical Union’s executive committee, and--the final hurdle--the Astronomical Union’s general assembly. Made up of representatives of more than 50 countries, the assembly next meets in the summer of 1988 in Baltimore.

McBane said she will lobby committee members to tour Agoura Hills.

Agoura Hills has been told that it may have a problem because of the confusion it might cause to name a crater after a hill. But McBane wasn’t dissuaded.

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“You can’t have a crater without having a hill on the side of it, right?” she reasoned.

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