Mars rover scientist agrees: Brunswick’s Chamberlain rocks

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 1

BRUNSWICK — Most Mainers know the story of Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s famous Civil War charge down the rocky hillside of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Now, there’s a rock on Mars bearing the general’s name.

Scientists discovered the rock in question on the 1,099th Martian day of the mission being carried out by the Mars Curiosity rover. Its image was captured by the Mars Handlens imager, which sits at the end of the rover’s arm.

When a Mars object is targeted for investigation, it is given a name from a list pre-approved by the International Astronomical Union.

And when principal investigator R. Aileen Yingst saw “Chamberlain” on that list, her first thought, she said Tuesday, was “Oh, yeah.”

Yingst is a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who works remotely from her Brunswick home.

She moved to Brunswick last year, but even before that Chamberlain had special significance to her, she said.

“My husband and I are Civil War buffs,” she said. “We’ve been interested in the history of the Civil War ever since we first started dating.”

In all of her research on Civil War history, she said, Chamberlain stands out for his exceptional character.

“The more you learn about him, the more you are … impressed by the fact that he learned from his mistakes, was not afraid of his mistakes,” Yingst said. “The more we learned about him, the more we felt this was an individual you could really look up to; not because he was perfect, because he grew.”

After the war, Chamberlain returned to Brunswick, where he was a professor at Bowdoin College. He served for four years as Maine governor, and then 12 as president of Bowdoin.

Although she has long studied Chamberlain, Yingst said she had no idea she would one day live just 4 miles from his historic home, which is now maintained  as a museum by the Pejepscot Historical Society.

But it’s fitting she’s in Brunswick now: the Mars rock was actually the second thing in her life she named after Chamberlain. The first was her son, Joshua Lawrence.

He now attends Brunswick Junior High School, and “it’s nice for (him) not to constantly explain what his name is,” Yingst said.

Chamberlain’s second namesake, the rock on Mars, is rust colored and about the size of a football, Yingst said.

But, she warned, don’t be deceived by Chamberlain’s small size: this rock has a dynamic history.

There’s been a lot of publicity recently about finding evidence of liquid water on Mars. It’s examining rocks like Chamberlain that led scientists to the discovery.

“Based on grain sizes and the way particles inside of the rock are laid out, this thing probably deposited in water,” Yingst said.

Flowing water likely broke down particles of rock at one location on the surface of Mars, and then transported them across the landscape to a new place. There, either chemical or pressure forces turned them into solid rock again.

“This,” Yingst said, “is a geologically important process.”

Yingst studied physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College before earning a master’s and PhD in geological sciences from Brown University. She did her post-doctorate work on the Mars Pathfinder mission.

Yingst said she often uses the lessons of Chamberlain in her work. In science, she said, “you must learn from what others have done before you.”

“Learning from history is a fundamental, day-to-day part of my life,” Yingst said. “That’s what research is: you are learning from good things and bad things, the mistakes and triumphs people have had before you.”

In other words, she said, “we stand on the shoulders of giants.”

“Hopefully someday someone will stand on my shoulders,” Yingst added.

Chamberlain is just one of many Mars features Yingst has named in her 15 years of Mars exploration.

But of all those names, this one is special to her.

“This is going to be Chamberlain, and it’s going to be on Mars. Go back in 100 years, and it will still look like this,” she said. “That still gives me goosebumps.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Chamberlain is a football-sized rock in the Arlee quadrant of Mars. It was named by scientist R. Aileen Yingst of Brunswick, and discovered on the 1099th Martian day of the Mars Curiosity rover mission.

Dr. Yingst with the Mars Curiosity rover, which captured images of the Chamberlain rock.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.