Scientists behind NASA’s car-size Curiosity rover have named a 120-metre-tall hill on Mars after a mission scientist who died due to Covid-19 complications. Rafael Navarro Gonzalez, a leading astrobiologist and researcher at Nuclear Sciences Institute at the National Autonomous University in Mexico, was a co-investigator on a portable chemistry lab aboard Curiosity studying the Martian soil, rocks, and air. Navarro-González, who helped lead the team that identified ancient organic compounds on Mars, died on January 28 this year.
“We are truly honored to have a prominent hill named after our dad; it’s his and our dream come true to see this happen,” wrote Navarro-González’s children, Rafael and Karina Navarro Aceves, in a statement to NASA.
The ‘Rafael Navarro Mountain’, located in the northwest Gale Crater, is at a major geological transition — from a clay-rich region to one that’s rich in sulfate minerals. Scientists believe the sulfate minerals hold key to understanding the major shift in the Martian climate.
“We think of this hill as a gateway,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Rafael Navarro mountain will be constantly in our sights for the next year as Curiosity winds around it.”
The new hill name is informal and for use by NASA scientists. Before Rafael Navarro mountain, the Curiosity team named four other features after deceased mission scientists.
Curiosity, the largest rover ever sent to Mars was launched on November 26, 2011, and landed on the red planet on August 5, 2012. Its key mission is to probe whether Mars ever had the right conditions to support life. In late March, Curiosity left “Nontron”, a region that takes the name of a village in southwestern France. Recently, the rover took a selfie with 'Mont Mercou', a rock formation nicknamed after a mountain in France. Now, it will navigate around Rafael Navarro Mountain, stopping in different regions of scientific interest to drill samples.