Bar Harbor now has an extraterrestrial namesake.

A Brunswick scientist is part of a team that is tagging geologic formations on Mars with the names of iconic places on Mount Desert Island as it tries to map the rover’s route through a gigantic crater on the red planet.

About one week ago, the Curiosity Mars rover crossed into a 1-kilometer-square quadrangle on Mars that has just been named Bar Harbor.

Among the rover’s objectives in the area that is less than half of a square mile are several destinations well known to visitors to Acadia National Park. Each target – places it will go to take pictures and sample rocks and soil – is named after a geologic formation in Acadia.

The so-called Bar Harbor quadrangle of Mars includes a number of features named after geological formations in Maine, including Cadillac Mountain and Egg Rock.

The so-called Bar Harbor quadrangle of Mars includes a number of features named after geological formations in Maine, including Cadillac Mountain and Egg Rock. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Dr. R. Aileen Yingst of Brunswick said the rover, which is about the size of a Mini Cooper, will be visiting Cadillac Mountain, the Beehive, Witch Hole Pond, Thunder Hole and Sand Beach in the coming weeks as it crawls across the surface of the red planet’s Gale Crater, an area about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

Yingst, a geologist, said the quadrangles were named by members of the billion-dollar Mars rover mission to help scientists organize their mapping as they explore the crater. It’s not known yet how long the rover will spend in the Bar Harbor quadrangle.

Yingst believes strongly in the mission’s importance, prompting her Thursday to let the public know that a town in Maine and well known geological formations in Acadia were being used for places on Mars.

“We are doing geology for the ages and we’re not going to be back anytime soon,” Yingst said during an interview at her Brunswick home Thursday night.

Yingst is a senior scientist with the Planetary Science Institute. Her position is funded by NASA.

Yingst serves as the deputy principal investigator for one of the dozen or so cameras that has been attached to an arm of the Curiosity Mars rover. She is responsible for the MAHLI camera or Mars Hand Lens Imager.

Her job is to photograph and analyze the planet’s geology looking for any clues in rocks or sand grains that might tell scientists whether Mars could have supported life.

She can do most of this research remotely from the comfort of the study in her home, in part by using a virtual reality HoloLens that allows her to survey the Martian landscape, which eerily resembles an Arizona desert with its mountains and barren, rocky landscape.

Dr. R. Aileen Yingst uses a HoloLens, a virtual reality headset that allows her to see panoramic views of the Martian landscape, right from the study of her home in Brunswick. She photographs and analyzes the planet's geology looking for clues in rocks or sand grains that might inform scientists on Earth whether Mars could have supported life.

Dr. R. Aileen Yingst uses a HoloLens, a virtual reality headset that allows her to see panoramic views of the Martian landscape, right from the study of her home in Brunswick. She photographs and analyzes the planet’s geology looking for clues in rocks or sand grains that might inform scientists on Earth whether Mars could have supported life. Photos by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The headset allows her to walk around the perimeter of her study and see panoramic views of the Martian landscape.

While the virtual reality aspect of the project may be cool, the rover does the dirty work. The rover has the capability to analyze samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground.

Each mission to a designated target is planned at least a day in advance to minimize waste and keep the nuclear-powered rover out of dangerous terrain. The rover travels about 50 meters a day.

“We can’t take stupid risks because we are using the taxpayers’ money,” Yingst said. “We all take this responsibility very seriously because it’s an incredible trust that has been given to us by the taxpayers of this country.”

Dr. Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute, said his company has been around since 1972 and has been working with NASA since the Mariner 9, an unmanned probe to Mars that was the first spacecraft to orbit another planet.

For years, the company was what Sykes called a “mom-and-pop” operation, but in the last decade, he has hired scientists from all over the country. Many, like Yingst, can work from their home. Another Mainer, Dr. Jeff Morgenthaler of Fort Kent, is among the firm’s senior scientists.

“We’re kind of pioneers in having distributed employees who are all connected by the wonders of the Internet,” Sykes said in a phone interview from Tucson, Arizona, where Planetary Science Institute is headquartered.

Sykes said Yingst is part of a team of at least six scientists working on mapping Mars. He doesn’t know how long the Curiosity mission will last but hopes it’s a while.

“This is the kind of stuff we love,” he said. “You just don’t get that many opportunities to get such close observations.”

Curiosity – a six-wheeled robotic, mobile laboratory – landed on Mars in 2012 with a mission of determining whether Mars could have supported small life forms such as microbes in the past and whether humans one day could survive on Mars.

Yingst said a lake probably existed in the Gale Crater at some point – possibly billions of years ago.

“It is by far the best hypothesis,” she said. If there was a lake, then there was probably life.

She described present-day Mars as a cold desert.

“Antarctica is much more hospitable than Mars,” Yingst said. “But if you look at the solar system as a whole, Mars seems very hospitable.”

Only Europa, a moon of Jupiter, seems like a better prospect for harboring some form of extraterrestrial life, Yingst said.

For now, scientists will continue to study the harsh Martian landscape with the help of the rover, which is expected to operate into 2020. Sending humans to Mars isn’t expected to happen until the 2030s at the earliest.

Yingst said it’s important for humans to understand that Mars is a place. The photographic images taken by Curiosity, which are available to the public, help with that.

“Mars is a place. It’s not just a dot in the sky or the abode of aliens. It is familiar and it is unfamiliar at the same time.”