Why are things on Mars named after places in Utah?

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Courtesy: Utah Geological Survey

Utah (ABC4) – Utah is no stranger to geological phenomena and groundbreaking research. But did you know scientists use Utah’s geological makeup to gain a better understanding of things on Mars?

Courtesy: Utah Geological Survey

There are even things on Mars named after places in Utah. 

An article by the Utah Geological Survey, UGS, written and researched by Thomas C. Chidsey, Jr., with the Utah Geological Survey and Rebecca M. E. Williams with the Planetary Science Institute, states on August 5, 2012, NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, landed on Mars to begin its scientific mission to study the fascinating geology of the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater and search for evidence of ancient environments capable of supporting microbial life.

Gale Crater was chosen for the landing site because water was most likely present during various times since a meteorite created it 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. 

Courtesy: Utah Geological Survey

Periodically, the Curiosity science team compiles lists of potential names to use for rock targets and locations observed by Curiosity along its trek.

These names differ from the formal names for major features designated by the International Astronomical Union, UGS shares. Rover science teams take names from places on Earth and assign them to features on Mars. 

Names of places in Utah have been applied to Martian rocks, outcrops, and locations that are very familiar to those of us from Utah, UGS shares.

Some Mars features look very similar to Utah sites or rocks, whereas others are similar in name only. 

ABC4 spoke with Tom Chidsey, who recently retired from the Utah Geological Survey, where he worked as a senior scientist for 31 years. 

By profession, Chidsey says he is a petroleum geologist, who studied the function of petroleum research in Utah.

Throughout the years, he worked with Rebecca Williams, Research Scientist for the Planetary Science Institute based out of Madison, Wisconsin. 

He says in 2008, Williams was working on a project dealing with exhumed channels in Utah. He told Williams he knew of some other examples of Mars in Utah so they continued working together. 

Williams tells ABC4 she was interested in studying Utah because “Utah has a wide variety of Mars analog sites.” “I was attracted to the extraordinary diversity of inverted channels that are exposed and easily accessible on Utah public lands,” Williams adds.  

While studying in Utah, Chidsey, Williams, and their team were able to directly link the overhead view of landforms to the outcrop view. Now, many years later, the Perseverance rover is planning to visit inverted channels in Jezero Crater due to research conducted in Green River, Utah.  

As the two scientists continued to work together, Chidsey says Williams asked him to make a list of things in Utah they could use to name things on Mars. 

Chidsey tells ABC4 the things she picked to name on Mars were from his list. “They don’t necessarily match, they are just names they used,” Chidsey adds. 

According to UGS the following things on Mars have been named after things in Utah: 

The Pink Cliffs: 

The Martian Pink Cliffs comprise a small ridge about 3 feet long and 6 inches high. This sandstone ridge appears more resistant to erosion than the surrounding, flatter terrain. 

In Utah, the Pink Cliffs are the top “step” in the Grand Staircase, a series of prominent, east-west-trending cliffs which ascend from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the High Plateaus of southern Utah. 

Whale Rock: 

With its humpback form, Whale Rock is one of the more prominent outcrops in Mars’ Pahrump Hills region. 

Utah’s Whale Rock is located in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. It is a large, eroded, and rounded outcrop of Jurassic-age Navajo Sandstone that looks like a large whale. 

Hayden Peak:

A ledge outcrop with connected circular disks called Hayden Peak generated a lot of discussion among the Curiosity science team. 

Utah’s Hayden Peak is a 12,479-foot mountain in the western part of the Uinta Mountains. It is composed of faulted and gently north-dipping sandstone beds of the Proterozoic Uinta Mountain Group.

Upheaval Dome: 

A spectacular outcrop of cross-bedded sandstone forms Upheaval Dome. 

Utah’s Upheaval Dome is a large, circular structure also located in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, just west of Whale Rock. 

“It was kinda fun to have these names that Utahns are familiar with,” Chidsey shares. 

So what about Mars resembles Utah?

“These are informal names adopted by the rover science teams. Before landing, the science team undertakes a mapping exercise during which the site is subdivided into squares. Each of these quads is named after a location on Earth. During the mission, each science target is named using a list of geological sites from the area the quad is named after. With all the research I have conducted in the gorgeous state of Utah, I took great pleasure in seeing those places recognized with sister sites on Mars,” Williams shares.

Chidsey says Utah is unique because it has modern and ancient examples of things similar to Mars. 

“We can’t go to Mars but we can walk around things here,” he adds. He says because of Utah’s similarity to Mars they are able to make connections and study to see if they would be able to recognize something on Mars based on what they researched in Utah. 

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