Destination Glenelg: As Curiosity rumbles along, Scotland rejoices

Amid Curiosity’s latest adventures — getting its wheels dirty, extending its robotic arm to grab hold of a rock — back on Earth, Glenelg, Scotland, is doing some celebrating. The rover is currently making its way toward the tiny hamlet’s Martian namesake, Glenelg, Mars.

Folks in Glenelg (note the palindrome) were thrilled to hear that a piece of Martian soil would be named after their town, population “less than 300,” area development officer Emma Maclean told the Los Angeles Times. Consequently, a party is in the works, and they have lured a NASA astronaut with Scottish roots to help them mark the occasion.

“This does not happen to us everyday!” Maclean said by email Tuesday. “We are hosting a party to mark the occasion and plan to have Bonnie Dunbar unveil an interpretational astronomical-themed sign for our community, ‘Twinned with MARS.’ ”

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Dunbar, whose paternal grandparents hailed from Scotland, has taken part in five space flights, according to NASA, and logged more than 1,208 hours in space.

It should be noted that Glenelg, Mars, isn’t technically named for the Glenelg peninsula in western Scotland but for geological outcroppings in Canada.

As Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity, told The Times, the NASA team mapped the region around Mars’ Mount Sharp, creating a series of quadrangles that were named prior to the rover’s landing.

“Both our landing site and Glenelg are within the Yellowknife quadrangle, named for the Canadian city that is the jumping-off point for expeditions that study the oldest rocks in North America,” he said. “Glenelg and other features within Yellowknife on Mars are named for the geologically famous rock outcrops around the Yellowknife area on Earth.”

Still, NASA apparently liked the history of the Glenelg name.

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“The full etymology of Glenelg goes back several centuries,” one NASA blog post says, “to a remote, windswept peninsula in western Scotland ... a fitting analog to Curiosity’s Martian destination, a place whose dramatic landscapes have inspired centuries of speculative tales.”

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In addition, the post notes, the “palindromic nature” of the name is fitting “since Curiosity plans to visit the site and then retrace its treads on the way toward Mount Sharp.”

Meanwhile, Glenelg gets ready to party. Curiosity is expected to arrive at Glenelg next month, and the Highlands town plans an Oct. 20 blowout, with funding from institutions including the Royal Astronomical Society, the Institute of Physics for Scotland and Glasgow University, Maclean said.

Details of the celebration, including ticket prices, are mostly under wraps at this point. But John C. Brown, a professor at the University of Glasgow who holds the title of astronomer royal for Scotland, is part of the proceedings and told The Times that amateur astronomers will demo a radio-controlled model of an earlier Mars rover as part of the celebration.

Maclean said party organizers would love to get someone else from NASA’s JPL operations in Southern California to take part. She said she had reached out to “Mohawk Guy” (flight director Bobak Ferdowsi), who said he was “intrigued.”

Either way, Glenelg plans to make the most of its namesake.

“The name-place connection with Mars,” Maclean said, “is not just a great thing for Glenelg but also for Scotland.”


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