The R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, an ice-capable Antarctic research vessel chartered for the National Science Foundation (NSF), has routinely braved some of the world’s most hostile waters in support of the science carried out by the United States Antarctic Program. Now, a geological feature on one of the inhospitable planets in the solar system bears the ship’s name.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) recently approved a proposal from NASA’s Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) science team to assign names to 10 “rupes,” long, cliff-like escarpments that formed over major geological faults on the planet Mercury.
One is now called the Palmer Rupe.The feature may be seen in this image on the IAU website.
Of the solar system’s four terrestrial planets, Mercury is the smallest, the densest, the one with the oldest surface, the one with the largest daily variations in surface temperature and the least explored. MESSENGER studies Mercury to develop a better scientific understanding of how the planets in the solar system formed and evolved.
Since 1976, the IAU has approved names for 27 rupes on Mercury. The latest names are the first new designations for rupes in more than five years. In keeping with the established naming theme for rupes on Mercury, all of the newly designated features are named after ships of discovery, such as the U.S.S. Enterprise, which was launched in 1874 and conducted the first surveys of the Mississippi and Amazon rivers.
Michelle Selvans, of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, led the effort to name this group of rupes. She explained that while some of the names came from historic vessels, some were proposed for their personal connections to members of the team.
Selvans sailed aboard the Palmer from December 2006 to January 2007 to conduct marine geophysics research off Antarctica.
“Being in Antarctica on the Palmer was a magical experience. The stark, vast landscape, the penguins playing in our wake and the fascinating people I shared the cruise with all made it one of the highlights of my training as a scientist,” she said. “Seeing the setting in person, and watching the data come in during my geophysics watch-stander shifts, made the process of studying our little corner of the West Antarctic Rift System that much more exciting.”
NSF is the presidentially mandated manager of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). Through the USAP, the agency coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent and in the Southern Ocean and provides the logistical support needed to carry out the science. The Palmer is chartered from Offshore Service Vessels, LLC, which is operated by Edison Chouest Offshore, Inc, of Galliano, La.
In choosing those rupes to receive names, the team picked from among the longest and most geologically interesting features that have been imaged by MESSENGER. “These features are easy to identify in images taken at dawn and dusk, when they throw shadows along their entire length,” Selvans says. “A crisp shadow that is only about one kilometer wide but hundreds of kilometers long really stands out in images.”
The list of newly approved names also includes the following:
- Alvin Rupes, after the Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin. Built in 1964 as one of the world’s first deep-ocean submersibles, Alvin has made more than 4,400 dives. It can reach nearly 63 percent of the global ocean floor.
- Belgica Rupes, after RV Belgica. Built in 1884, this steamship was originally designed as a whaling ship. It was converted to a research ship in 1896 and took part in the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1901, becoming the first ship to overwinter in the Antarctic.
- Carnegie Rupes, after a yacht launched in 1909 as a research vessel. The ship was built almost entirely from wood and other non-magnetic materials to allow sensitive magnetic measurements to be taken for the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. During 20 years at sea the vessel traveled nearly 300,000 miles and carried out a series of cruises until an onboard explosion in port destroyed the ship in 1929.
- Duyfken Rupes, after a small Dutch ship built in the late 16th century. In 1606, the vessel sailed from the Indonesian island of Banda in search of gold and trade opportunities on the island of Nova Guinea. Under the command of Willem Janszoon, the ship and her crew did not find gold, but they did discover the northern coast of a huge continent: Australia.
- Eltanin Rupes, after the USNS Eltanin, launched in 1957 as a noncommissioned Navy cargo ship. The vessel was built with a double hull and officially classified as an Ice-Breaking Cargo Ship. In 1962, the ship was refitted to perform research in the southern oceans and reclassified an Oceanographic Research Vessel. Magnetic field measurements made with the Eltanin were critical in validating the hypothesis of sea-floor spreading. Seabed cores collected in the Southern Ocean collected by Eltanin are stored in an NSF-supported depository. Work on these samples led to the discovery of the first meteorite impact site in the oceans.
- Nautilus Rupes, after the Exploration Vessel Nautilus. In service since 1967, the ship has conducted underwater studies in archeology in the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas. The vessel is currently equipped with remotely operated vehicles and a high-bandwidth satellite communication system for remote science and education.