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Name of Mars base evokes rich Earth parallels

3:53 AM, Aug 12, 2012   |    comments
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PASADENA, California - The conspiracy theorists are going to go nuts when they discover that NASA's Curiosity rover landed in "Area 51" inside Gale Crater.

NASA officially is naming the landing site "Yellowknife" after the capital of the Northwest Territories in Canada, a place where geologists discovered the oldest rocks on Earth. The "rocks underneath the ones named Yellowknife are the oldest rocks we've found on Earth. They are almost 4 billion years old," said Dawn Sumner, a Curiosity project scientist from the University of California-Davis.

"The rocks we're looking at on Mars are also billions of years (old) and so there is a nice relationship that way." Sumner is one of a group of scientists mapping the Gale Crater region where Curiosity touched down on its six wheels. "We've divided the area up into about 1-mile-by-1-mile quads, or squares. And we had volunteers from the science team map each quad," she said.

"Curiosity happened to land in Quad 51, which is one of the ones I mapped." Sumner said no one on the science team made the connection with infamous Area 51, a nickname for the secret military base in southern Nevada where the Air Force develops experimental aircraft and weapons systems. The base also is the subject of UFO and conspiracy theories.

Curiosity's landing in Quad 51 is nothing more than a hilarious happenstance. "That was completely by accident," Curiosity science chief John Grotzinger said with a laugh. Yellowknife has its own interesting history. Located 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Yellowknife was named for a local tribe of Indians who made yellow knives out of copper.

The boomtown was settled in the mid-1930s -- the result of a gold rush. People also mined uranium in the region and, in the 1990s, there was a diamond rush in Yellowknife. For geologists and Arctic explorers, the mining town always has been a jumping-off point for mapping and excavation missions -- a place to gather supplies for expeditions.

Project scientists decided Yellowknife is a wholly appropriate name for Quad 51. "The quad that Curiosity landed in has this rich geologic history. In terms of a name, we will be looking at that geologic history on Mars, and it is a very exciting place to be." NASA officials released a low-resolution color panorama of Yellowknife on Thursday.

A full-resolution, full-color panorama will be beamed back to Earth after a four-day pause in science instrument checkouts that begins Saturday. Engineers will use the time to load Curiosity's computers with software designed for surface operations.

By Todd Halvorson Florida Today

Gannett/Florida Today

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