Posted by: Rob Viens | March 19, 2012

Darwin in Space II: Mars and Beyond

On the 19th of March, Darwin was back at sea and only left us a short entry for the day:

“The next morning from the light winds & strong current we were yet in sight of the coast of Brazil” (Mar 19)

So another digression into the depths of space…

As he sailed the Atlantic as a young 23 year old, staring at the night sky, I can’t image that Darwin could ever have imagined that his name would live on in the the heavens. A few weeks ago I discussed the lunar features and spacecraft that were named for Darwin and the Beagle  (See Darwin in Space I). Since then I have uncovered two more solar system landmarks that bear Darwin’s name. (In all cases, they claim to be named after both Charles Darwin and his son George, who was an active scientist in his own right.)

Darwin Crater on Mars:

In the southern hemisphere of Mars, located in the Martian highlands, you can find Darwin Crater. Heavily cratered regions such as this one almost certainly date back about 4 billion years to a time in solar system history known as the “heavy bombardment period”.  This the same age as the lighter-colored highlands on the moon.

Darwin Crater on Mars

In and of itself, the crater does not stand out as anything two exciting. But just to the west of Darwin Crater is the enormous Argyre Planitia – a 1000+ km impact crater – the second largest on Mars.  If you look along the margins of the crater you can see what look like channels, that were probably formed earlier in Martian history when water was flowing on the planet’s surface.  Some have suggested that the Argyre Planitia impact basin itself may have filled with water forming a large lake. Just the place life might have developed!

Explore Mars one of the best interactive maps of of the planet available online – Google Mars.

Asteroid 1991 Darwin:

In 1991, a large chunk of rock located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter was named after Darwin.  It can be found a little over twice as far from the sun as the Earth (having a semi-major axis of 2.2 Astronomical Units), and orbits the sun every 1232 days, The diagram below shows the position of the Earth and 1991 Darwin on March 19, 1832 – the day after Darwin left Bahia.  Click on the diagram to see its orbit in relation to the Earth today (or to project it into the future). (Source: NASA JPL)

Darwin Orbit in 1832

1991 Darwin was first discovered in 1967 at the Yale-Columbia Southern Observatory at El Leoncito, Argentina.  Interesting, and possibly by design, El Leoncito is located about 100 km from a pass over which Darwin crossed the Andes later in the voyage.

To be fair, the picture below is a recent picture of the asteroid Vesta – currently orbited by the Dawn spacecraft (source: NASA JPL).  As it is hard to photograph a dark-colored rock floating in space from 100,000,000 miles away, there are no pictures of 1991 Darwin. (Truth be told, it is also much smaller than Vesta, too.)


All of this may not be as disconnected to Charles Darwin as you might think.  Later in the voyage (when the Beagle returns to Bahia in 1836) Darwin wonders in his diary:

“How great would be the desire in every admirer of nature to behold, if such was possible, another planet”  (Voyage of the Beagle)

Oh Charles, how I would love to hear your thoughts on the modern field of astrobiology or to see your reaction to the Mars Rovers. Or to have you around when we discover the first extraterrestrial life.  What would you think?

There are no objects or geographic features beyond the asteroid belt that appear to be named for Darwin, and from what I know about planetary nomenclature, it is unlikely there will be. But wouldn’t it be cool if the first terrestrial planet found around another star, or maybe the first one we find with life, was called Darwin.  What a legacy for the man who taught us that species where not static. (RJV)


  1. […] – Also see Darwin in Space: Mars and Beyond for a look a the crater on Mars named after Darwin. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailLike this:LikeBe […]

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