Winnipeg on Mars: Tiny piece of Red Planet named after Manitoba city

A small patch of Mars is now named after Winnipeg, likely in a nod to the Canadian city's claim to fame as being (sometimes) as cold as the Red Planet.

Moniker may have stemmed from 2013 deep chill that made city as cold as uninhabited planet

The Curiosity Mars rover, seen in this June 2014 photo from NASA, recently arrived at a spot dubbed 'Winnipeg' in a rocky area on Mars known as the Murray formation. (NASA/ JPL-Caltech/MSSS/AP)

A small patch of Mars is now named after Winnipeg, likely in a nod to the Canadian city's claim to fame as being (sometimes) as cold as the Red Planet.

NASA, which has its Curiosity rover on Mars to determine whether the planet ever had the conditions to support microbial life, has bestowed the Winnipeg name upon a small area known as a "target."

The "target" known as Winnipeg was named in a mission update posted on NASA's Mars rover website on Monday.

"It's probably like a foot across," said Scott Young, an astronomer and manager of science communication and visitor experiences at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg.

"It's hard to tell because there's no scale bar on the picture, but it's a really, really small area."

At the same time, Young said, Winnipeg — the foot-long spot on Mars, that is — could help shed light on whether there was life on the uninhabited planet.

"It's one of the small foot-across areas of Mars that is being studied up in detail out of the whole rest of the planet," he told CBC's Up to Speed program on Thursday.

"Lots of the planet doesn't get any name at all other than, you know, some big broad name. But this little piece of real estate up there, we got a claim to it."

'Pretty cool' shout-out

While NASA didn't explain how it came up with the latest Mars place names, Young said it's "pretty cool" to see Winnipeg getting a shout-out.

"It's kind of nice to know that the folks at NASA actually noticed back a couple years ago, when we were all talking about the concurrent weather measurements of Winnipeg's winter and the temperature on Mars and how we were colder," he said.

Late in 2013, while much of Manitoba was gripped by a winter deep freeze, the Manitoba Museum reported that temperatures in Winnipeg were as cold as the surface of Mars.

The Curiosity rover reported that Mars reached a maximum temperature of –29 C on Dec. 31, 2013 — a temperature that Winnipeg only rose to shortly before 3 p.m. CT.

The daytime high that day was supposed to be –31 C, with windchill values making it feel more like –40 or –50, meaning exposed skin would freeze in less than five minutes.

"It lasted for a couple of weeks or so, I'd say, where the temperature was actually, you know, comparable or lower here in Winnipeg," Young said. "But of course, Mars is a very different environment."

Studying rocks on Winnipeg

The spot on Mars known as Winnipeg is in an area of rock known as the Murray formation.

Scientific instruments aboard the robotic rover, including a drill and an X-ray spectrometer, will analyze rocks and take close-up geological images of the area.

Young said the Curiosity mission is conducting sophisticated geological research to figure out how rocks formed on Mars, and Winnipeg could provide some clues.

"It's an area where there has definitely been some running water in the past and these layers are being laid down, so it's a great place to look for, for example, any possible Martian fossils from the early days if there was ever life on Mars," Young explained.

"Some of those really big exciting questions that we've been trying to figure out about Mars — the little area called Winnipeg is the perfect place to gain those observations and maybe solve some of those mysteries."

It's not the first time a part of Mars has been named after a Canadian city. In 2012, NASA named the Curiosity rover's landing spot after Yellowknife because of the Northwest Territories capital's link to the exploration of North America's oldest rocks.


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