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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.”

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