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December 20, 2021

The International Astronomical Union Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature approved the name for Marvin crater on September 30, 2021. Named after planetary geologist Ursula Marvin, this crater in the south polar region is a permanently-shadowed crater, important for future exploration targets.


Marvin was a geologist at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, contributing great works to the fields of meteorite characterization and lunar geologic history. Dr. Marvin’s early inspiration to explore the geosciences was fueled by exposure to this diverse field in a physical geography lecture: “Here was a professor talking about mountains, how they form and change, about rivers, lakes, deserts, beaches, dunes and how the earth itself formed and evolved,” she said of the lecture. “I never knew there was such a science.” Graduating with a Master’s degree in Geology from Radcliffe College in 1946, Marvin later attended Harvard to work on PhD research. While attending Harvard, she met another geology student, Thomas Marvin. They married, and before she had finished her doctorate, Mr. Marvin was hired by a company to prospect for ore deposits in Brazil and Angola. The expeditions, which they undertook together starting in 1953, lasted several years.

Ursula and Thomas returned full time to the United States in 1958. After teaching mineralogy at Tufts for two years, Ursula was offered a job researching meteorites at Harvard before joining the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1961. She later received her doctorate from Harvard in 1969. Later in her career, Marvin analyzed samples from the Apollo collection at what is now known as NASA’s Johnson Space Center as part of her work studying the geological history of the Moon for the Smithsonian: “We compared rock types from different sites on the moon,” Marvin recalls. Her supervisor, Dr. John Wood, says of her contributions: “Ursula was the mineralogical arm of the team.” Her work at the astrophysical observatory directly contributed to the currently predominant theory that the Moon, at an early stage in its history, must have had an early magma ocean. Marvin adds: “I think that idea still is the best explanation of how the lunar crust was formed,” which still holds as a key component to lunar crustal formation concepts to this day. In addition to her research on meteorites and lunar rocks, Dr. Marvin also participated in mapping activities of Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon.

Always interested in meteorite studies, Dr. Marvin would not only travel to the ends of the Earth for new meteorite discoveries, but she would also be on the scene of a new fall at a moment’s notice. In 1982 when a six-pound meteorite fell through the roof of a house in Wethersfield, Connecticut, she and her colleagues didn’t wait to inspect the new visitor from another world.

Starting in 1978, Dr. Marvin participated in three expeditions to Antarctica to hunt for meteorites. In 1982, she was part of the team that discovered a lunar meteorite. She was the first woman on the American research team to travel to Antarctica. She says of the research she conducted there:  “The glimpse of a dark object starts the heart pounding. Racing toward it, the excitement grows as one sees it is not a shadow, not a glacial cobble, but a meteorite — a piece of rock from another planet.”


Marvin crater (in red circle) as shown on LOLA hillshade map, South Pole Orthographic projection.
Marvin crater (in red circle) as shown on LOLA hillshade map, South Pole Orthographic projection.

It’s only fitting that a crater named after Dr. Marvin would be in the lunar south polar region as her work in lunar meteorites and Antarctic meteorite research contributed much to lunar geology. Craters in the polar regions of the Moon have an important significance in lunar exploration as portions within the crater remain in shadow all year round. These permanently-shadowed regions are important because not being exposed to the sun means that volatiles like water can get trapped and can accumulate. These permanently shadowed areas are places where scientists are now looking to find large deposits of water ice, in the hopes that this ice can be extracted for use as a source for water, oxygen, and hydrogen.

Ursula was awarded the History of Geology award from the Geological Society of America, the Geological Society of London's Sue Tyler Friedman Medal, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Science and Engineering from the U.K. Campaign for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). She also earned the Lifetime Service award from the Meteoritical Society and was elected and served as their President, leading the professional organization through many structural changes and improvements. Dr. Marvin passed away in February of 2018 at the age of 96. Dr. Marvin would contribute to more than 160 research papers and a book entitled “Continental Drift: The Evolution of a Concept.” A peak in Antarctica has been named for her - Marvin Nunatak. Asteroid 4309 Marvin was named by the International Astronomical Union for her.

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