Saturday, March 13, 2004
Mars mission spawns its own unworldly lingo PASADENA – NASA's ongoing mission to Mars has spawned some extraterrestrial jargon to accompany the out-of-this-world look at the Red Planet that its twin rovers are providing.

The language can be so dense, clipped, technical and sometimes downright goofy that only the most dedicated NASA follower could hope to understand it. It can also be remarkably studied in its details.

Take the following example:

"MER-A ratted Adirondack yestersol while solar groovy, even though it was high tau in Gusev."

Rendered in plain English, the sentence would read:

"Spirit, the first Mars exploration rover, used its rock abrasion tool to grind into a rock nicknamed for an Eastern mountain range one Mars day ago while receiving adequate power from its solar panels, even though there was a large amount of dust suspended in the martian atmosphere above its landing site, named after a 19th century Russian astronomer."

So why use Mars-speak?

The answer's obvious to those who do.

"It's faster," said Ray Arvidson, the deputy principal investigator on the $820 million mission.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, perhaps like no other bureaucracy on Earth, does complex things in complicated ways. That spills over into how it describes things.

"One of the things in the space program is people like to describe things precisely and sometimes that takes four words. And if it's not enough, they add 'system' at the end," said mission science team member Rob Sullivan.

Paring down that verbosity generates acronyms and abbreviations. Both abound in the halls of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the Mars mission for NASA.

Spirit and its twin, Opportunity are known formally as Mars Exploration Rover A and B, or MER-A ("mur-ay") and MER-B ("mur-bee.") The miniature-thermal emissions spectrometer instrument on each robot is called Mini-TES ("mini-tess.") "Pancam" is a panoramic camera.

The sometimes convoluted way of speaking is nothing new to NASA, said Gentry Lee, chief engineer of the Mars program at JPL.

On the Viking mission to Mars in the 1970s, scientists and engineers began speaking in "nested acronyms," where the individual letters of an acronym often referred not to full words but to further acronyms, Lee said.

"That is what happens on these projects," Lee said.

This time, as NASA explores Mars with two of the most complex planetary robots ever built, the language is far more calculated.

"One of the things we found early on in the design of the mission was that the team was going to need some sort of structured naming convention to help them keep track of what they were doing and what they were talking about," said Roxana Wales, a cultural psychologist on contract to NASA's Ames Research Center.

Three years ago, Wales, along with fellow psychologist Valerie Shalin, of Wright State University in Ohio, and JPL planetary geologist Deborah Bass, set out to devise such a system.

"It's kind of evolved into a whole language of its own," Bass said.

The convention dictates that features on Mars are given names suggestive of their appearance ("blanco" is a white rock) or of their function ("big dig" is a trench site). Sometimes the two can be combined in punning fashion ("mer lot" isn't just a patch of wine-dark martian soil, it's also where the Mars exploration rover Opportunity sat parked after landing.)

Specific targets within a feature are given derivative names when possible. Scientists gave patches of "mer lot" names like "asphalt" and "tarmac," Wales said.

"They're cute but they're also an easier way of remembering things than with a string of numbers," Bass said.

More abstract notions, like time, also have their own names to help scientists and engineers remember where they're working, 150 million miles away.

"Yestersol" – martian for yesterday – is one example. On Mars, a day lasts 39 minutes longer than it does on Earth and is called a "sol," Latin for "sun," to underscore the difference. "Have a good sol," "Tosol" and "morrowsol" all are in varying degrees of use.

Actions also boast specific names to eliminate confusion.

A "mini-Mini" is a brief observation made using the Mini-TES. A "driveby" is driving past a specific target and photographing it; a "scoot and shoot" is a series of "drivebys." To "scratch and sniff" is to drill into a rock and then examine it with the rover's instruments.

"The idea is you have multiple activities going on and you need one name for the whole thing," Shalin said.

For now, there's only a cheat sheet for the basic grammatical rules of Mars-speak. But scattered efforts to record new vocabulary words as they appear eventually may yield a full Mars lexicon.

"I suspect there will be a dictionary by the time we finish," Bass said.

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