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What's in a (Martian) Name?

If you’re a fan of The Martian, then you’re familiar with the alien landscape of Acidalia Planitia and Arabia Terra. But you may be wondering: Where did these strange names come from? On this week’s podcast we set out to answer that question, in a fun (spoiler-free) romp through fictional astronaut Mark Watney’s Martian neighborhood. Behind every name, there’s a story, and many of them are tied to the history of physics and astronomy down here on Earth. Here’s a taste of what we uncover in the podcast:

-Acidalia Planitia is named after the legendary Fountain of Acidalia, frequented by Venus and the three Graces. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli produced a series of influential Mars maps during favorable viewing conditions between 1877 and 1886. He’s responsible for naming many of the broad regions of Mars, known today as classical albedo features.

-Schiaparelli has a crater of his own, and many other craters mentioned in The Martian are named after prominent physicists and astronomers. Rutherford and Becquerel are known for their work in nuclear physics, while Trouvelot and Marth (with Becquerel, the craters that make up “Watney’s Triangle”) are famous for their astronomical observations, among other things.

-Hamelin crater, also mentioned by Watney, gets its name not from a person, but from a town in Germany: Hamelin, of Pied Piper fame.

-Mawrth Vallis (not to be confused with Marth crater) takes its name from the Welsh word for Mars, following a convention for large valleys and channels established in 1973.

-Why 1973? Because Mariner 9 had just returned close-up views of never-before-seen Martian features that suddenly needed names. The International Astronomical Union, the governing body in charge of official planetary names, set up a Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature with task groups for each solar system body, including Mars.

-What about the robots? Pathfinder’s rover, Sojourner, was named in 1995 by 12-year-old Valerie Ambroise in an essay contest, after abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Using contests to find rover names has become something of a tradition. Sophie Collis named the Mars Exploration Rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” in 2003, while Clara Ma dubbed the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” in 2009.

What’s in a name? A story, usually, and stories abound in the world of The Martian.

Links to the audio clips used in the podcast:

Ernest Rutherford speaking at the University of Göttingen in 1931

1971 NASA Highlights

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1957

Clara Ma names the Curiosity rover

Podcast and post by Meg Rosenburg.


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