NASA explores, names part of Mars after Bar Harbor, Maine


NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars on May 11, 2016 (photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech).

Thanks to a fondness that a NASA scientist has for Mount Desert Island, the scenic coastal Maine town of Bar Harbor now has a namesake on another planet.

Bar Harbor, Mars, is a quadrangle on Earth’s closest neighbor that is being explored by Curiosity, a rover sent by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory in 2011 to examine the planet’s geology and assess whether it once may have supported primitive forms of life.

According to an article in the Mount Desert Islander weekly newspaper, the informal name was bestowed by a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher involved in the mission, Katie Stack Morgan, who has visited MDI frequently and even got married at the Bar Harbor Inn.

To help keep track of the areas the rover explores, scientists involved in the mission divide the Martian landscape into 1.5-kilometer squares and assign to each square the name of a town with a population of less than 100,000 people.

“As Curiosity investigates rock targets within a quad, we assign names to the targets that correspond to geologic formations and features from that town on Earth,” a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center wrote in an official mission blog post.

As a result, Bar Harbor is not the only place moniker mentioned among Curiosity’s rovings that is recognizable to people familiar with MDI.

Scattered among the quadrangle’s alien landscape are features named after The Bubbles, The Bowl, Gilmore Peak, Cranberry Island, Otter Cliff and St. Saveur. Somesville, Witch Hole Pond, Blackwoods, Thunder Hole, Ellsworth, Sand Beach and Conners Nubble also are included on the list.

“Bar Harbor has been so special to me in my Earth life,” Stack Morgan told Mount Desert Islander reporter Liz Graves. “It’s so fun to see these names get used on Mars.”

The rock formations and outcroppings on Mars, 140 million miles away, bear little resemblance to their Earthly counterparts. There is no water or vegetation on Mars, for one, and the rocks being found and analyzed there are mostly sedimentary (one exception being a meteorite dubbed “Egg Rock”) rather than the igneous type of pink granite for which MDI is known.

These videos — one of them actually is a 360-degree photo that you can swivel around with your cursor — show some of the terrain on the red planet that Curiosity has encountered.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.