weather icon Clear

A Pahrump 55 million miles away

Some of the most innovative and challenging scientific research in human history is now underway in the Pahrump Hills, but not the ones 60 miles west of Las Vegas.

These Pahrump Hills are down the highway another 55 million miles or so, at the base of a mountain in the bottom of a crater on the planet Mars.

NASA’s Curiosity rover arrived at the Pahrump Hills in early September after a science-filled, 5½-mile drive from the place it landed on Mars two years ago. Since then, the boxy, SUV-sized machine has been making loops across the rock formation as researchers back on Earth look for the best places to drill a few holes and collect samples.

So how did an outcrop on the red planet get named for a Nye County town best known as the home of Art Bell and Heidi Fleiss? The answer is not quite rocket science, but it’s close.

When researchers were planning Curiosity’s mission, they divided the roughly 4-mile landing area into quadrants and labeled some of the features they expected to find.

Each quadrant was given a theme based on a certain geographic and geologic region on Earth. That’s why Curiosity has already passed through areas named for parts of Antarctica, Australia and “Precambrian Canada,” said Katie Stack Morgan, a research scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The Pahrump Hills are part of the Shoshone quadrant named after points of interest in and around Death Valley, along the Nevada-California border. Other features in that area of Mars carry such names as Amargosa Valley, Barstow, Kelso, Mojave, Badwater, Tecopa, Artist’s Drive and Emigrant Pass.

“It’s arbitrary. It’s not because it looks like Nevada, even though it happens to,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory spokesman Guy Webster said.

As yet, there is no Las Vegas on Mars.

Stack Morgan said arriving at the Pahrump Hills was special because it’s been in Curiosity’s sights since it landed in 2012. The outcrop lies at the base of Aeolis Mons, a Mount Rainier-sized peak rising from the center of the crater where the rover first touched down. The Pahrump Hills offer scientists their “first taste” of that mountain, Stack Morgan said.

“It’s pretty fantastic,” she said.

She’ll get no argument from Pahrump’s most famous late-night radio host. On the official website for Art Bell’s show about all things paranormal and otherworldly, the rover’s arrival at the Pahrump Hills was greeted with an exclamation point. “This is it,” the post began. “Curiosity has reached its prime destination.”

Over the past six weeks, scientists have sent the rover on several trips up, down and around the grayish red outcrop much the way field geologists on Earth walk an area to find the best places to swing their rock hammers. Stack Morgan said the initial visual inspection eventually gave way to a “contact-science campaign” using Curiosity’s arm to pick spots worthy of drilling and additional sampling.

Though she’s never been to Nye County’s largest town, population 39,000, Stack Morgan said she has “spent a fair amount of time out in Death Valley,” where the Pahrump name “pops up” in a few geologically significant places.

The town’s current extraterrestrial claim to fame probably won’t last. Stack Morgan said the names being used for the Curiosity mission are unofficial and unlikely to be made permanent by the International Astronomical Union, a panel of scientists that names things in space and settles such controversies as whether Pluto deserves to be called a planet.

But even if it’s temporary, the use of Pahrump on Mars fits the mission nicely. After all, the town’s name is thought to come from the Paiute phrase for “water rock.”

“We’re always looking to evidence of water,” Stack Morgan said. “It’s a very appropriate name for a target on Mars.”

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Pahrump Community Library reopens today

The Pahrump Community Library will reopen its doors to the public today, Wednesday, June 3, but when visiting, the experience will be quite a bit different than it once was, with several new temporary guidelines in place, all in the name of health and safety in face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

PVHS holds ‘uncommon’ graduation ceremonies

Unorthodox, uncommon and unconventional would be three apt terms to describe graduation activities at Pahrump Valley High School this year.

Warmline launched as health workers’ resource

The toll-free phone line, administered by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine, in partnership with the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, will serve as a confidential mental health resource for health care professionals to seek support before they have reached a crisis point.

Mining companies continue to help fund small businesses

A group of Nevada mining companies are digging deep to help small storefront businesses in Nye and Esmeralda counties endure the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with state and local economic development staff, the mines have donated more than $200,000 to help businesses such as the Dinky Diner in Goldfield stay afloat during the emergency.

Tonopah health care provider expands services

Central Nevada Regional Care, a new health care provider in Tonopah, began operations in March and offers walk-in urgent and primary care services seven days a week.

Nevada Health Response releases Phase 2 guidance

Nevada Health Response issued specific guidelines for 16 categories of industries to use as they enter Phase 2 of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s roadmap for reopening the state.

Unemployment claims fall for 4th straight week

Finalized data from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation show initial claims for unemployment insurance totaled 15,607 for the week ending May 23, down 2,230 claims, or 12.5 percent, compared to last week’s total of 17,837. This is the fourth consecutive week of declines in regular initial claims. Through the week ending May 23, there have been 495,840 initial claims filed in 2020, 474,488 of which have come in the last 11 weeks.

STEVE SEBELIUS: Masks really shouldn’t be political

Although most people agree with the idea of wearing masks in public, they have still become a political symbol in a divided nation.

Nevada Health Response adds testing locator map

As Nevada moves into Phase 2 of its reopening of businesses and social activities statewide, testing for COVID-19 is an important tool for health officials and professionals who are working hard to ensure that anyone who needs a test can get one.

Nye County reopens office, one masked visitor at a time

Nye County announced Monday on its Facebook page that it is, with restrictions, reopening the Planning Department and Building and Safety Division.