Friday, August 3, 2012

EXTRA: Why there is no "Mount Sharp" on Mars (and why there can't be one)

There is one thing that everyone agrees on regarding the landing spot the Mars Science Laboratory "Curiosity" is aiming for: it's inside the big impact crater Gale, named after an Australian amateur astronomer - but what is the 5-km-high mound in the middle of the crater called that the Mars rover is supposed to explore in the coming years? Until this spring it didn't have a name at all, but that changed in May when the International Astronomical Union's Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature gave it the name "Aeolis Mons", in accordance with the established international rules for naming features on planets (which are also easily available on Wikipedia). For Mars these clearly state that features which are neither albedo features nor impact craters nor valleys are to get their names from "a nearby named albedo feature on Schiaparelli or Antoniadi maps". With Gale crater lying in the Aeolis quadrangle - the region named already by Schiaparelli after a part of Asia Minor - there was no choice.

In the run-up to Curiosity's arrival, however, the MSL team had begun using the term "Mount Sharp" for this mound around March: a decision by "the mission's international Project Science Group" which was in stark conflict with the established naming rules for Martian features explained above, of course. There is no doubt that Robert P. Sharp deserved to be honored on Mars - alas you can only name big craters for a deceased Mars researcher. And the IAU this May also did exactly that, giving the name "Robert Sharp" to a 152 km wide crater, albeit not exactly an obvious one. Case closed? Not to the MSL management which - dare I say stubbornly? - continues to use the term "Mount Sharp" to this day, in press releases, during press conferences and even in a scientific paper - while independent Mars scientists use "Aeolis Mons", of course. And as this story and this tweet document, the MSL management has no intention to adhere to the Martian naming rules and plans to continue to use the "Mount Sharp" term, occasionally qualified as 'informal', while ignoring the mound's official name.

So what does the the IAU body responsible for naming features on Mars say? The current chair of the Mars Task Group happens to be the well-known U.S. planetary scientist Brad Smith (who was the Voyager Imaging Team leader and among the first to image the Beta Pic dust disk), who gave the following statement to this blog two hours ago: "It has become pretty much routine for science teams working with Mars landers and rovers to apply informal names to very small (<100 m features observed by their instruments. As a policy, IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) applies official names to features smaller than 100 m only very rarely, and only when such features are considered to be of special scientific interest. It is unusual for a feature as large as Aeolis Mons to be given an informal name, but this has happened occasionally throughout the history of Mars exploration by spacecraft. As a matter of convenience, informal names are often used during discussions within the science teams. Unfortunately, they may also come up when scientists communicate directly with the media.

"In the past, most of these informal names eventually faded away, but this is the age of the Internet and such names can become permanent even within the professional astrogeological community. I completely agree with your concern over the confusion that such names create, but I must point out that the WGPSN has no control whatsoever over the use of informal names by the various science teams. However, it is also important to note that these unofficial names are never listed in the official IAU database, and they do not appear on the official maps published by the USGS." It may be worth noting that on Wikipedia "Mount Sharp" redirects to "Aeolis Mons" (though incorrectly calling "Mount Sharp" a "former" name of the mound when it fact it was a faulty proposal that couldn't fly), while even ESA ignores the correct name. A third feature named by the IAU in May was Aeolis Palus, by the way: the flat area inside Gale where MSL will touch down and for which NASA hasn't even come up with an 'informal name' ...

So much for the bare facts - but why all the fuzz over a mound on Mars, one may ask? To this blogger it's all about history and not throwing out established solar system naming procedures on a whim and without even knowing what rules exist and why. Current Mars research is "standing on shoulders" reaching back into the 19th century and even further, and over the centuries what was found on the world most similar to ours has been named in clear ways that resonated with the public at large. There are options to honor great planetary scientists on Mars, and Robert Sharp has his crater now. But that doesn't even have to be a end of it: Long ago NASA named the Viking 1 lander on Mars the Mutch Memorial Station after a key team member had died in a tragic accident; the respective plaque is on display at the Nat'l Air & Space Museum, with the intent to carry it to the actual lander one day. Now is that a clever idea to honor someone great, or what? And no international rules had to be broken ...

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