At ABBA, Go Left to SpongeBob

Times Staff Writer

Diana Blaney, a planetary scientist working on the Mars rover missions, stared at a black-and-white image of three rocks about the size of duffle bags in Gusev Crater.

Feeling a little brain-dead from a lack of sleep and an overdose of Diet Coke, she scraped her mind for a name.

Any name.

Then it came to her. She had just read an e-mail from two friends, so she typed “Rita” into her computer after their black shepherd-Labrador mix.


Now she was on a roll.

“Pepper,” she decided, naming a rock after another friend’s grayish-white cat, and “Ladrone,” after Rita’s black-and-white adopted brother.

The alien landscape of Mars took a few more steps toward becoming more familiar.

Like European explorers who named the New World after their homes in the Old, the Mars scientists have filled the strange landscape of the Red Planet with a mishmash of modern life on Earth.

The twin rover missions have forced scientists to come up with more than 4,000 names to mark everything from the majestic Columbia Hills to a few pebbles in the sand.

The result is an extravagantly labeled map punctuated by the scientists’ ever-changing preoccupations with history, holidays, monkeys, ice cream, cartoon characters, sushi, Mayan words, Scandinavian fish delicacies ... the list goes on and on.

It hasn’t been easy.

Sometimes a rock gets named twice. Sometimes the names run afoul of the official naming protocol. Sometimes a team member doesn’t like the theme for an area.

And sometimes team members get desperate.


Blaney has reached that state of mental blankness several times in the nearly two years the robotic rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, have been wandering the surface of Mars.

As a specialist directing the infrared instrument on Spirit, the 43-year-old scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge figures she has come up with several hundred names, each dutifully recorded in the rovers’ mission database.

Brad Smith, 74, an astronomer who worked on several Mariner missions to map the Red Planet and who leads a task group on official naming on Mars for the International Astronomical Union, said there was a purpose to the naming madness: Scientists need a common set of names.

It is too difficult to discuss “that volcano on the left” or “the one on the right,” he said. “People like to name their pets instead of saying, ‘Hey you’ or ‘the dog.’ ”

The names from the rover missions are considered unofficial titles, but for some of the larger landmarks, they have stuck.

The Red Planet itself has gone through several names.

The Egyptians called it Har Decher, the Red One. The Babylonians referred to it as Nergal, the Star of Death. The Romans called it Mars, after their god of war.

A single name sufficed for thousands of years, but that began to change in the 19th century, when better telescopes allowed scientists to see more detailed features of the planet.

Astronomers Giovanni Schiaparelli and Eugene Antoniadi produced the first detailed maps of Mars, with about 100 names for what they thought were seas, continents, polar ice caps and canals or channels crisscrossing the surface.

The names, mostly drawn from the Bible, myths and classical locations, were used until the 1960s, when NASA’s Mariner missions swooped by.

The detail from Mariner’s cameras forced the International Astronomical Union to come up with an official Martian naming system.

The union decided that large craters would be named after deceased scientists or writers who had contributed to the lore of Mars, such as Schiaparelli and author H.G. Wells. Small craters would be named after towns and villages with populations of fewer than 100,000 people. Large valleys would be named using the word for Mars in various languages; small valleys would be named after rivers. Nothing smaller than 330 feet would get an official name unless it had exceptional scientific interest.

The arrival of the Mars rovers has overloaded the system. With the ability to look close and far with incredible detail, the two robots have forced scientists to churn out names like a sweatshop factory.

Some of the names, like Columbia Hills -- after the ill-fated space shuttle that was destroyed as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere in 2003 -- have deep meaning in the history of space exploration. Others sound like they were named by exhausted scientists whose children watch a lot of cartoons.

Schiaperelli and Antoniadi “would probably be appalled” by the hodgepodge, said Smith, who has been involved with the astronomical union’s Mars naming group for more than three decades.


The first days of the rover missions went smoothly enough.

Spirit was the first to touch down and, after getting settled, it snapped a picture of a nearby 30-foot crater that the mission’s principal investigator dubbed Sleepy Hollow, after the long hours the mission team had been working.

Two prominent rocks were named Adirondack, for the mountain range in New York state, and Sashimi, because of the rock’s salmon color.

Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, landed three weeks later on the other side of the planet in Meridiani Planum.

Since everyone at JPL was raiding a freezer of ice cream at the time, Opportunity’s controllers took their cue from their stomachs. That’s why there is an area of round and chunky pebbles named Cookies N Cream and a lighter patch of soil named Vanilla.

Earlier this year, a pockmarked meteorite in Opportunity’s path was named SpongeBob SquarePants. Scientists had to name a spot on the rock and came up with SpongeBob’s best friend, Patrick.

Just before Valentine’s Day last year, Jeff Moersch, 38, a planetary geologist at the University of Tennessee, decided to name a rock after his wife, Sarah.

Moersch, who worked mostly on the Spirit team, picked the biggest rock -- about the size of a large inflatable exercise ball. He named a spot on the rock Be My Valentine.

Moersch said he and his colleagues realized they shouldn’t have used such personal names in a big project funded with hundreds of millions of dollars of public money. NASA psychologists had actually given them lists of approved names.

“People just lose the lists,” Moersch said. “The honest truth of it is, we’re working on such a fast-paced schedule.... We have to quickly come up with any name that’s unique. It doesn’t matter so much what it is.”

Blaney realized after she had named rocks for her friends’ pets (unintentionally misspelling the name of one), and several other scientists had also used personal names, that naming systems needed to be created.

One involves Mayan words.

Blaney and her colleagues searched online for names such as Coba, a ruined city on the Yucatan peninsula, and Tikal, a temple site in Guatemala.

They named a low, wrinkly crop of rock Uchben, after the Mayan word for “ancient,” and a spot on the rock Koolik, which means “cut down.”

“We started running out of Mayan city names,” she said. “The people who had to spell them were really getting annoyed.”

So they moved on to 1970s pop music: ABBA, the Bee Gees and Engelbert Humperdinck.

With so many names being hurled at Mars, it was inevitable that problems would crop up.

Last year, when Spirit was tooling around the base of Husband Hill, Blaney and her colleagues were naming rocks after bones -- Wishbone, Funnybone and LaBrea (after L.A.'s tar pits).

A few weeks later, Blaney’s team left for a science conference in San Francisco. Another team of scientists took over and began naming the same rocks after “The Twelve Days of Christmas” -- Turtle Dove, Peartree and Calling Birds.


Jim Rice, 46, an astrogeologist who worked on Opportunity, wanted to get beyond all the frivolous names.

He had waited his whole life to see Mars up close and expected scientists in the decades to come to scrutinize their work.

“I just think naming things, big features like craters or hills or mountains, we should put some thought into that, not make it the flavor of peanut butter or something,” Rice said. “We are explorers. The rovers are our robotic emissaries.”

Rice imagined the thrill of discovery that ancient explorers must have felt.

“We are exploring literally a new world,” he said. “We’re 21st century explorers, the modern-day equivalent of Lewis and Clark.”

Rice decided that a more appropriate strategy was to use the names of ships of exploration.

Eagle, the name of Neil Armstrong’s lunar module, was a no-brainer. It became the name of the crater Opportunity landed in.

Then there was Fram, the ship that carried the first team of men to make it to the South Pole, and Vostok, a warship that navigated Antarctica and also the spaceship of Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space.

Since the rover teams were the ones scouring the Martian landscape and drilling holes, Rice believed it was their prerogative to spin a web of working names. “The IAU meets once every three years,” he said. “Our mission was unfolding in real time and we needed to have names as it was going on.”

The astronomical union doesn’t much concern itself with these matters. Except in one case. The biggest controversy has been over the naming of seven Martian hills after the astronauts who died in the Columbia shuttle accident.

It was a clear violation of international rules that say the names of hills are to be based on major geographical areas nearby. In addition, people must be dead at least three years before their names can be used.

“We have to really stick by those rules with the international agreement on it,” Smith said. “If you start breaking the rules, everything starts falling apart.”

NASA and the astronomical union compromised, deciding to allow NASA to use the name in the popular press, but not entering it into the IAU database.

Rice doesn’t mind if the monikers remain unofficial. He believes these names will stick:

“It doesn’t matter if the IAU approves it or not. Unless there is an atomic war and the records are erased, when someone lands on Mars in 20 to 30 years and they go to Eagle Crater, they’ll still call it Eagle Crater.”