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What’s in a name?

As you read these very words, halfway across the solar system, on the dusty, dune-ripled Meridiani Plain on Mars, the Mars Exploration Rover OPPORTUNITY might be trundling towards yet another meteorite. A couple of days ago she sent back images showing this dark, blocky “something” up ahead…


Since it was spotted lots of MER-watchers have been wondering if it might be yet another piece of nickel iron that’s fallen from the Red Planet’s sky. We should know by this time tomorrow.

Could there be a clue in the fact that it has already been named – like all the fascinating meteorites spotted by Oppy so far – after an American island..? Hmmm! 😉

Whatever it turns out to be, “Marquette Island” has, like “Block Island”, “Shelter Island” and “Mackinac Island”, been named after a small island off the coast of the US. But have you ever wondered why NASA been naming great chunks of starstone, found out on the plains of Mars after islands? I know I did, after Mackinac was given its name, which led to a bizarre internet coincidence I’ll describe later.

So. Islands. On a purely visual level it definitely makes sense. The Meridiani Plain that Oppy is crossing is, in effect, a vast sea of dust, with dunes of dust and sand rippled across it like waves frozen in a moment in time. Anything that sits on top of or between those dunes does look very much like an island.

But why THESE islands? Is there some special selection criteria for naming a martian meteorite after an island? After “Mackinac” was christened – and I wrongly, at first, thought it hadn’t been named after an island, but was set straight by several people! – I decided to try and find out, and after an email to the Public Affairs office at NASA (hi Veronica! 🙂 ) I had my answer…

Mackinac was proposed by James Ashley at Arizona State University. He’s  the Payload Downlink Lead and Payload Uplink Lead for the Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer, and a Mineralogy/Geochemistry Science Theme Group Lead for mission planning sessions.”

Here’s what James had to say about it…

Yes indeed; when I sense an opportunity to suggest a name for a cobble on Mars, I choose a Michigan island because… …I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  So we now have the unofficial names of Isle Royale, Drummond, and Mackinac Island for three of the rocks that we have come across since exiting Victoria Crater (Mackinac is the only one of these three to be imaged close up).  For reasons that are familiar to Michiganders, Mackinac Island is one of my favorite places to visit back home. ”

Aha! Mystery solved! Well, at least as far as Mackinac was concerned. What about the other islands tho? Why had they been chosen? Was it for a specific reason – maybe someone on the MER team had a personal or family link with an island that made them want to honour it, and immortalise it on Mars? Or was there just a “My First Big Book Of Islands” sitting on a desk at JPL that people were opening at random to help them choose names?

There was one certain way to find out. I decided to email the man who is responsible for giving the world “Spirit” and “Opportunity”, and all their hundreds of thousands of photographs; the engineer who designed, built and landed on Mars arguably the two most successful unmanned spacecraft in the history of planetary exploration; the amazing scientist who was recently awarded the “Carl Sagan Medal” in recognition of his amazing achievements in spreading the word about space exploration through his work on the MER mission – Steve Squyres.


Now, obviously, Steve is a very busy guy, and I was quite prepared to not hear back from him, what with his ridiculously busy schedule and everything. But, generous with his time as ever, Steve emailed me back just a few days later, and shone a light on the naming process for these fascinating meteorites…

We are naming the isolated rocks that we find out in this sea of sand and sulfates after islands. Beyond that, there isn’t much rhyme or reason to it. We have a long list of island names from which we can draw as desired. What name gets assigned is pretty much at the whim of who’s on the science team the day the rock is found. In this particular instance, the suggestion came from James Ashley, a member of the team with a strong interest in meteorites. Why he suggested Mackinac I don’t know, but it was a good name, consistent with our naming convention, so that’s what we went with.

Cheers, SS

So, there you have it! Personally I like the fact that it’s not a cold, scientific selection process, but an absolutely human one, ‘pretty much at the whim of who’s on the science team the day the rock is found’ as Steve put it.

So, let’s take a look at the meteorites Oppy has found on her meandering trek across Meridiani, and at the islands they’re named after.

First, “Block Island”. Block Island remains the largest meteorite spotted on Mars so far – a huge, heavy chunk of gnarled, gnawed iron that sits on Meridiani Planum like a worn down statue, or a piece of a temple. What was it named after? Well, it turns out it was named after this island, off the coast of New England…



Next was “Shelter Island”, which was named after this island, a little to the west of Block Island…


And then, my personal favourite, “Mackinac”…


As I said earlier, it was this meteorite that set me on my quest to uncover the reasons behind the meterites’ names in the first place. Soon after I posted the above picture of Mackinac on Twitter, to my surprise and delight I saw it had been reTweeted ( that’s ‘forwarded to other people’, for those of you who don’t use Twitter) by Mike Forrester, a Twitter user who actually lives ON Mackinac Island, and writes a blog about it! I sent him a message, thanking him for using it, and soon we had struck up something of a correspondence. Mike told me he had passed on my picture to a local school, and – and here’s where it all really got started, I guess – he asked me why NASA had chosen to name the meteorite after his beautiful island home..? I replied that basically NASA named just meteorites encountered by Oppy after US islands, but didn’t know why one was chosen over another… and that got me wondering about it. That’s when I emailed JPL, and Steve Squyres, too…

When I checked out Mike Forrester’s blog, a picture came up of a beautiful hotel that looked very, very familiar…


Aaaggghhh!!! Where had I seen that hotel?!?! It was maddening! Then it came to me… I’d seen it in one of my all-time favourite films… and this might shock, amuse or horrify some of you when you see what it is, you have been warned…


“Somewhere In Time” was a chick-flick before the term was even invented, and I love it to bits. If you aren’t familiar with the film, Christopher Reeve plays a writer who travels back in time to be with a beautiful actress – played by Jane Seymour- who he fell in love with after seeing her portrait on a gallery wall. Sadly, he is stopped from being with her when he is thrust back to his own time, and he then basically starves himself to death pining for her… but when he dies the lovers are reunited…

By now you’re either going “Awwwwww!” or “Bleughhh!!” into a bucket! But I don’t care, it’s a beautiful story, with great characters, and even if it is cheesier than a warehouse full of mature cheddar it’s just a lovely, escapist film. And come on, you can’t watch rockets and starships and aliens ALL the time..!

Anyway… that hotel looked so familiar because it is featured in the film. Personally I think that’s quite a spooky chain of events… my favourite martian meteorite comes to be named after an island which has the hotel featured in one of my favourite films, and I only found out about it after someone I didn’t even know existed saw my picture on Twitter! I LOVE the internet! 🙂

But now we have “Marquette Island” – which island is it named after? here it is…


Strange shape, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see what shape its namesake on Mars turns out to have..!

So, there you have it – the story behind the naming of the meteorites found on Mars by Opportunity so far. I’m sure many more are just sitting there, waiting to be found. No doubt there are lots of US island names ready and waiting to be used, but here I’d like to officially start an internet campaign to have one named after an island that the good people at NASA and JPL probably won’t be aware of – this one…


That’s “Craggy Island”,  home of these wonderful people…


Oh go on NASA, name a meteorite Craggy Island, you know you want to. Ah, go on, go on, go on… 😉

(CUMBRIAN SKY gift for “Father Ted” fans – “My Lovely Horse“) (and if you’ve never seen or even heard of it, take a look…!)


P.S. If you’d like to see some more images, showing the meteorites and their islands, here you are – please click on the pictures to bring up full size versions…

BI jpg


MI jpg

7 Responses

  1. Heh! Scrolling down through your post, I happened to stop with the image of the hotel at the bottom of the page, not seeing pic of the movie poster. Looked at the hotel frontage and thought “Oh, that looks like that brilliant place featured in that goopy time travel movie, with Christopher Reeve.”

    Sorry Stu. For me, the big feature of that movie was the *hotel*, not the romance… 😉 (Yeah, I’m one of the “bleauuugh-in-a-bucket” brigade.)

    And thanks for the great post! I learned a lot about the naming conventions of martian meteorites.

  2. […] sind; es wird reformatiert) steht nicht zur Debatte! (Nature news.2009.1066 5.11.2009. Und Cumbrian Skies zur Benennung der Meteoritenfunde auf dem Mars – der jüngste ist aber gar keiner, […]

  3. I’m with you on this one. We simply MUST get a Craggy Island before a Rugged Island turns up. 😉


  4. Hi Stuart, I stop by your blog maybe once every couple of months and was reading this with interest, amazing coincidence, my girlfriend is from Northern Michigan, just a few miles from Mackinac, and when I go over there I’ll be living in the Grand Rapids that that James Ashley is from.

    I’ll be sure to send you a postcard from Mackinac 🙂

  5. I like the layout of your blog and I’m going to do the same thing for mine. Do you have any tips? Please PM ME on yahoo @ AmandaLovesYou702

  6. Thanks for providing info on the names of rocks on Mars. marquette island is from the area we lives in. There are at least 36 islands in our immediate location, with more nearby, so we can provide additional names!

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