It's Only a Rolling Rock on Mars (But I Like It)


Mars Rock Mars Rock
The rock (seen bottom right) was tossed about 3 feet (1 meter) by NASA's InSight spacecraft as it landed on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018. The rock is slightly larger than a golf ball and was nicknamed "Rolling Stones Rock" in honor of the Rolling Stones. NASA/JPL-Caltech

While the Amazon Rainforest burns, and bad news about the climate emergency, political inaction and corporate malfeasance shows no sign of abating, it's easy to see why the Aug. 22, 2019 announcement that NASA named a Mars rock after the legendary British rock band, the Rolling Stones, was such a big deal.

Indeed, the run-up to the much-anticipated concert at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena on the same day, only a stone's throw from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was given the full Hollywood treatment. Even "Iron Man" actor Robert Downey Jr. teased the event from his social media accounts, saying that he was "bubbling with anticipation" for the Stones' concert and what NASA was about to announce.

The announcement itself was met with equal measures of joy and incongruity, when it became apparent that a small rock, beneath the landing struts of NASA's InSight lander, had been named by NASA mission managers "Rolling Stones Rock" to celebrate both the iconic band and robotic endeavors in space.

The rock, you see, was dislodged and kicked 3 feet (1 meter) across the Martian regolith as the InSight lander's retro rockets guided the robot to touchdown on Nov. 26, 2018. The connection became clear: It was a rolling rock on Mars, what else were mission managers going to call it? And why not announce the big news during the Stones' rescheduled No Filter tour when they played at the Rose Bowl for the first time in 25 years?

"The name Rolling Stones Rock is a perfect fit," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington, said in a NASA statement. "Part of NASA's charter is to share our work with different audiences. When we found out the Stones would be in Pasadena, honoring them seemed like a fun way to reach fans all over the world."

Mick Jagger The Rolling Stones Mick Jagger The Rolling Stones
NASA named a Mars rock after the legendary British rock band, the Rolling Stones, during their recent show at the Hollywood Bowl in Pasadena, California.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

At the concert, before the Stones played their opening song, Downey came to the stage to share his enthusiasm for what he was about to announce, taking a light-hearted "vote" (with the 60,000 fans in the audience) on whether the name "Rolling Stones Rock" should be ratified. Of course, it was, and he thanked the crowd for being a part of history.

A special NASA video about Rolling Stones Rock was then played, along with the 1974 Stones song, "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll."

It's worth noting that only the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an international group of scientists who vote on matters of giving designations in space, can officially name objects off Earth, so Rolling Stones Rock is technically unofficial. As noted by NASA, however, "scientists working with NASA's Mars rovers have given lots of unofficial nicknames to rocks and other geological features," and that while Rolling Stones Rock may not be an official designation, its name will appear in working maps of the Red Planet.

"I've seen a lot of Mars rocks over my career," JPL geologist Matt Golombek said in a statement. He's helped land all of NASA's Mars surface missions since 1997. "This one probably won't be in a lot of scientific papers, but it's definitely one of the coolest."

It's also undeniably a culturally significant designation. But the way NASA teamed up with one of the most famous living rock bands, and a Hollywood A-lister, demonstrates a new energy to leverage celebrity culture to grab the attention of a huge audience that may not otherwise appreciate the feats of engineering and science discovery that the agency does every day.

It may just be a golf ball-sized Mars pebble named after a rock band, but it could also be a seed of inspiration for the next generation of scientists. And if there's one thing our planet needs night now, it's more science-minded leaders and a science-literate voting public. Whether that science is formally taught in a classroom or informally communicated by "Iron Man's" Tony Stark before introducing the Rolling Stones, I'm absolutely on board for the ride. Rock on, little Martian pebble, rock on.